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PRICTION OVER PUBLIC LAND OWNERSHIP BELONGS TO DENR, NOT TO REGULAR COURTS.

In BAGUNU VS. SPS. AGGABAO, G.R. NO. 186487, AUGUST 15, 2011, the question as to who between the DENR
and the regular courts has primary jurisdiction over matters of land ownership was clarified. Primary jurisdiction over
matters of public land ownership belongs to the Director of Lands, subject to review by the DENR Secretary. On the
other hand, jurisdiction over matters of private land ownership is exclusively vested with the regular courts.
The pertinent portions of the pronouncement are quoted as follows:
The petitioner insists that under the law actions incapable of pecuniary estimation, to which a suit for reformation
of contracts belong, and those involving ownership of real property fall within the exclusive jurisdiction of the Regional
Trial Court. Since these actions are already pending before the RTC, the DENR Secretary overstepped his authority
in excluding Lot 322 from the petitioners free patent application and ordering the respondents to apply for a free
patent over the same lot.
In an action for reformation of contract, the court determines whether the parties written agreement reflects their
true intention. In the present case, this intention refers to the identity of the land covered by the second and third sale.
On the other hand, in a reivindicatory action, the court resolves the issue of ownership of real property and the
plaintiffs entitlement to recover its full possession. In this action, the plaintiff is required to prove not only
his ownership, but also the identity of the real property he seeks to recover.
While these actions ordinarily fall within the exclusive jurisdiction of the RTC, the courts jurisdiction to
resolve controversies involving ownership of real property extends only toprivate lands. In the present case,
neither party has asserted private ownership over Lot 322. The respondents acknowledged the public character
of Lot 322 by mainly relying on the administrative findings of the DENR in their complaint-in-intervention, instead of
asserting their own private ownership of the property. For his part, the petitioners act of applying for a free patent with
the Bureau of Lands is an acknowledgment that the land covered by his application is a public land whose
management and disposition belong to the DENR Secretary, with the assistance of the Bureau of Lands.
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The resolution of conflicting claims of ownership over real property is within the regular courts area of
competence and, concededly, this issue is judicial in character. However, regular courts would have no power to
conclusively resolve this issue of ownership given the publiccharacter of the land, since under C.A. No. 141,
in relation to Executive Order No. 192, the disposition and management of public lands fall within the
exclusive jurisdiction of the Director of Lands, subject to review by the DENR Secretary.
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With this clarification, it should now be clear that jurisdiction on questions of land ownership is determined by
the nature of the land involved. If the land is still a public land, then the DENR has primary jurisdiction. If the subject
land is already a private land, the authority to adjudicate matters of ownership belongs with the regular courts.
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