CEBU, Philippines?Many couples bypass the requirement of a marriage license by swearing that they?ve been living together as man and wife for five years.
About 50 percent to 75 percent of marriages solemnized by one Cebu judge alone resort to this shortcut.
This unusual trend was revealed in documents submitted to the Supreme Court which is investigating a ?wedding coordination scam? in some Cebu courts.
The high percentage is a ?statistical improbability,? said lawyer Rullyn Garcia, who heads the Supreme Court?s fact-finding inquiry.
Under the Family Code of 1987, a marriage license is not required if a couple has been living together as man and wife for five years and have no legal obstacle to their union.
A judge will solemnize the marriage after the couple presents an affidavit of cohabitation ?a sworn statement attesting that they had been living in for five years before deciding to get married.
In some courts, the practice of solemnizing marriages has fallen into a money-making venture.
The data was contained in three folders of documents involving as many as 600 civil marriages officiated by one judge, whose name Cebu Daily News is withholding for the meantime.
The files were forwarded in July 2006 to the Supreme Court's Office of the Court Administrator by the Office of the Ombudsman in the Visayas because the anti-graft office had no jurisdiction over the judges.
The documents were filed with the Ombudsman-Visayas last year to support a complaint against a judge who would officiate 40 marriages in a day.
The complaint, however, was dismissed by the SC legal department, said lawyer Rullyn Garcia, SC judicial supervisor.
Nevertheless, Garcia said he included the complaint in the ongoing investigation of the ?marriage scam? going on in some Cebu courts.
Based on the documents, Garcia said at least half of the weddings officiated by one Cebu judge availed of the provision of the Family Code of the Philippines that exempts couples from obtaining marriage licenses if they had been living in for five years.
?I somewhat agreed with the observation (by the Ombudsman) that somehow there are probably irregularities in the conduct of these marriages considering the statistical improbability because I think 50 to 70 percent of the marriages performed in a particular court involved that kind of marriage,? said Garcia, head of the nine-member team tasked to look into the scam.
A source, who asked not to be named, said one of the 600 marriages officiated by the judge involved an 18-year-old girl who executed a joint affidavit that she had been living with her partner for five years.
?Meaning she was 13 years old when she started living in with her partner,? said the source in disbelief.
The judge in question would officiate 40 marriages a day. Most of the marriage licenses were secured from the Office of the Civil Registrar outside Cebu City.
Garcia said the suspension of hearings in five MTCCs and one RTC to allow probers to conduct an inventory of cases and interview staff did not mean that the judges and personnel of these branches were involved in the racket.
?It is just that this is what the chief justice wants to prioritize," he said.
Garcia said Chief Justice Puno was alarmed by the report of MTCC Judge Donato Navarro that some Cebu courts were charging P2,000 to P10,000 as wedding solemnization fees when it should only cost P300.
Navarro earlier said that in one court, the judge and the stenographer, were involved in the racket. He also supplied the Supreme Court copies of 408 marriage certificates from one MTCC branch where fees ranged from P2,000 to P6,000.
Some court staff members were demoralized by the ongoing investigation.
Navarro said he was surprised the SC inquiry covered five courts, when he only pointed to one. He said a syndicate might be running the scam without the judges? knowledge.
Judge Ramon Codilla of RTC Branch 19 welcomed the SC inquiry on overpriced solemnization fees.
He said some judges weren?t aware excessive fees were collected because they would only solemnized the marriages after the marriage certificates were handed to them by court personnel.
"We have received reports that the fixers are the court personnel themselves and this has been a problem for a long time already," Codilla said.
Chief of Reporters Suzzane S. Alueta and Correspondents Jhunnex Napallacan, Jolene Bulambot and Inquirer