Perhaps one of the most famous and often abused Latin maxim is: Dura lex, sed lex or the law may be harsh but it is the law. With the phrase there is a perception that the application of the law is so harsh to the point of being unfair but then since it is what the law says then it must be executed. Such as when the defendant is found guilty of a crime and the penalty imposed seems disproportionate to the offense committed. It is as if the law is unfair but of course it is not. The general application of the law to all without any distinction with regard to race, sex, status in life, or some other factor is to make sure that the law is indeed fair. Whether the lowly status of a person makes the application of the law appear harsh is not something attributable to the law. To hold people less or more liable by reason of their status or condition will be unjust and unfair.
Meaning of the phrase
Dura lex, sed lex in English roughly means: “the law may be harsh, but it is the law”. It does not necessarily imply that our laws are harsh or cruel but merely emphasizes the principle that the law should apply to an individual even if from our assessment the punishment may be too harsh for an act which might not have been motivated by evil intent. This term is usually used in crimes that are mala prohibita or those acts which are wrong because they are prohibited by law. The punishment imposed in mala in se crimes or those acts which are wrong in themselves or morally wrong are generally accepted by the society as a just penalty for the crime committed. It is easier for society to accept the punishment for acts considered morally wrong because it is a universally accepted principle that a person who wrongs another must be punished.
In several cases the Supreme Court used the term to describe the unfortunate situation of the accused. The case of Revaldo vs. People, G.R.170589, 16 April 2009, illustrates the “harshness” of the law. Cut forest products were found in the residence of the accused which he claims will be used for the repair of his residence but he did not obtain any permit. Cutting lumber is not in itself wrong but if done without permit, the person becomes liable under the law. Here, the Supreme Court could not do anything but to impose the law against the accused even if he did not have any evil intent and the only mistake he committed was not obtaining the necessary permit. Even his ignorance of the law requiring the permit will not absolve him because another legal principle will apply: ignorantia legis non excusat (ignorance of the law does not excuse). The Court however, made an exception in the case of Obiasca vs. Basallote, 17 February 2010, G.R. No. 176707. The Supreme Court in that case said: “the law should never be applied or interpreted to oppress one in order to favor another. As a court of law and of justice, this Court has the duty to adjudicate conflicting claims based not only on the cold provision of the law but also according to the higher principles of right and justice.” In the end, right and justice are still the guiding principles of our courts in the interpretation of laws for it will be unfortunate if we blindly follow the provisions of law even if the result will be patent injustice or wrong.