Soriano argues herein that there must be prior notice and hearing before he could be held liable for indirect contempt, and that no hearing was conducted as to the contempt charge. This contention has merit.
There are two kinds of contempt punishable by law: direct contempt and indirect contempt. The contempt charged against Soriano is properly classified as indirect contempt, as it consists of disobedience of or resistance to a lawful order of a court. Section 3, Rule 71 of the Revised Rules of Court provides for the following requisites prior to conviction of indirect contempt: (a) a charge in writing to be filed, (b) an opportunity given to the respondent to comment thereon within such period as may be fixed by the court and (c) to be heard by himself or counsel.
The RTC did notify Soriano in writing of the charge of indirect contempt, by way of the 15 August 1994 Order. That same Order afforded Soriano the opportunity to comment on the charge, which Soriano essentially did through his Motion for Reconsideration. However, the third requisite laid down in Rule 71 was not complied with, as no hearing was ever conducted by the RTC on the charge of contempt.
As the Court ruled in Balasabas v. Hon. Aquilisan:
On the proceedings for indirect contempt against the petitioner, the grave error of the respondent judge is manifest when, under the circumstances disclosed in the records, petitioner was denied his right to notice of hearing, to have his day in court and present witnesses in his behalf xxx.
Section 3, Rule 71 requires that there must be a hearing of the indirect contempt charge after notice thereof is validly served on the person charged with indirect contempt. As adverted to earlier, an order requiring petitioner to submit a written explanation constitutes the written charge for indirect contempt, and at the same time serves as notice of said charge. However, such notice cannot by all means, be considered as a notice of hearing itself. The two notices are different, for they have distinct object and purpose.
With respect to constructive contempts or those which are committed without the actual presence of the court, it is essential that a hearing be allowed and the contemner permitted, if he so desires, to interpose a defense to the charges before punishment is imposed.
The proceedings for punishment of indirect contempt are criminal in nature. The modes of procedure and rules of evidence adopted in contempt proceedings are similar in nature to those used in criminal prosecutions. Thus, any liberal construction of the rules governing contempt proceedings should favor the accused. It can be argued that Soriano has essentially been afforded the right to be heard, as he did comment on the charge of indirect contempt against him. Yet, since an indirect contempt charge partakes the nature of a criminal charge, conviction cannot be had merely on the basis of written pleadings. The contemner is assured of his or her day in court. If the contemner is served a notice of hearing, but fails to appear anyway, then that is a different matter. A hearing affords the contemner the opportunity to adduce before the court documentary or testimonial evidence in his behalf. The hearing will also allow the court a more thorough evaluation of the defense of the contemner, including the chance to observe the accused present his side in open court and subject his defense to interrogation from the complainants or the court itself.
In Soriano’s case, no hearing was ever set or held. Soriano’s claim was that he had no knowledge of the Order requiring him to submit the program of payment. This is a defense that is susceptible to ratification by testimonial evidence at the very least. Soriano should have been afforded the chance to prove his side by presenting evidence in his behalf in open court. However, the RTC denied Soriano the opportunity to adduce evidence in his behalf through a hearing, or at least explain his side or substantiate his defense through any opportunity which the RTC could have provided him. Instead, the RTC adjudged him guilty based on the bare assertions contained in the pleading he filed in response to the show cause order which is the 15 August 1994 Order of the RTC. Such finding, derived as it was without any comprehensive evaluation of the arguments or of the evidence, cannot be sanctioned by this Court and should be overturned.
The practical effects of this ruling may seem negligible considering the relative gravity of the ruling against Soriano in G.R. No. 123936. Yet, it is still important for this Court to reiterate that contempt proceedings, particularly for indirect contempt, take on the character of criminal proceedings. Judges are enjoined to extend to an alleged contemner the same rights accorded to an accused.
WHEREFORE, the Petition is granted. The Order dated 4 October 1994 is set aside insofar as it declared petitioner Ronald Soriano in contempt of court.