The Public Attorney’s Office (PAO) sought clarification with the Office of the Court Administrator (OCA) on whether PAO’s clients were exempt from the payment of sheriff’s expenses amounting to one thousand pesos (P1,000.00) when civil actions are filed in court. The PAO alleged that its clients should be exempt from paying sheriff’s expenses since Sec. 6, R.A. 9406, An Act Reorganizing and Strengthening the Public Attorney’s Office, “specifically exempts them from the payment of docket and other fees incidental to instituting an action in court and other quasi-judicial bodies.”
The OCA clarified that notwithstanding PAO’s exemption in R.A. 9406 from payment of docket and other fees incidental to instituting an action, it was not exempt from the payment of sheriff’s expenses. The OCA explained that sheriff’s expenses, strictly speaking, are not considered as “legal fees” under Rule 141 of the Rules of Court since they are not payable to the government; they are payable to the sheriff/process server to defray his travel expenses in serving court processes in relation to the litigants case.
Not satisfied with the clarification of the OCA, the case was referred to the Supreme Court (SC) for resolution. The SC agreed with the OCA and held that the exemptions granted to PAO are specifically limited to the payment of fees and cannot be extended to sheriff’s expenses –
[f]ees is defined as a charge fixed by law or by an institution for certain privileges or services. Viewed from this context, the phrase “docket and other fees incidental to instituting an action” refers to the totality of the legal fees imposed under Rule 141 of the Rules of Court . . . [i]t includes filing or docket fees, appeal fees, fees for issuance of provisional remedies, mediation fees, sheriff’s fees, stenographer’s fees and commissioner’s fees. These are the fees that are exacted for the services rendered by the court in connection with the action instituted before it.
Sheriff’s expenses, however, cannot be classified as a “fee” within the purview of the exemption granted to PAO’s clients under Section 6 of R.A. 9406. Sheriff’s expenses are provided for . . . to defray the actual travel expenses of the sheriff, process server or other court-authorized persons in the service of summons, subpoena and other court processes that would be issued relative to the trial of the case.
In In Re: Exemption of Cooperatives from Payment of Court and Sheriff’s Fees Payable to the Government in Actions Brought Under R.A. 6938, the Court also clarified that sheriff’s expenses are not considered as legal fees. Aware of the burden given to PAO clients due to this non-exemption of sheriff’s expenses and the Constitution’s mandate to extend “free access to the courts and adequate legal assistance” to the less privileged, the Court reiterated that PAO officials and employees are given the authority to serve summons, subpoena, and other court processes in cases involving their client in lieu of a sheriff pursuant to Section 3, Rule 14 of the Rules of Court. In effect, this allows the sheriff’s expense to become an operating expense of PAO, chargable to PAO’s client’s adversaries –
Authorizing the officials and employees of PAO to serve the summons, subpoenas and other court processes in behalf of their clients would relieve the latter from the burden of paying for the sheriff’s expenses despite their non-exemption from the payment thereof under Section 6 of R.A. No. 9406. The amount to be defrayed in the service of summons, subpoena, and other court processes in behalf of its clients would consequently have to be taken from the operating expenses of PAO. In turn, the amount advanced by PAO as actual travel expenses may be taken from the amount recovered from the adversaries of PAO’s clients as costs of suit, attorney’s fees or contingent fees prior to the deposit thereof in the National treasury (Re: Letter dated April 18, 2011 of Chief Public Attorney Persida Rueda-Acosta Requesting Exemption from the Payment of Sheriff’s Expenses, A.M. No. 11-10-03-0, 30 July 2013, J. Reyes).