November 28, 2020

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Analysis reveals obstacles to accessing justice through government budget

The budget of the General Fund proposed by the government of Puerto Rico for fiscal year 2021, as well as the budgets for the past ten years, sustain a reduction of funds to government entities that provide access to justice for citizens while limiting time and citizen participation in budget discussion.

The denunciation of organizations Open Spaces and Legal Aid Puerto Rico focused specifically on the Public Prosecutor's Offices for the Patient, Women, and Citizen, as well as the General Court of Justice.

“They are institutions that are assigned responsibilities related to promoting access to justice, such as guiding people about their rights, investigating violations of law, making inspections, processing complaints, granting remedies, imposing fines, and even going to court in re presentation of the people, "said Nicole Díaz a public policy analyst for Legal Aid, a non-profit entity dedicated to doing education, legal support and advocacy work with social impact.

In In the case of the Citizen's Procurator's Office the analysis that was presented this afternoon found that the entity's budget has seen a 51% reduction since fiscal year 2010 . In addition, it has seen a decrease of 37% in its personnel, from 103 in 2012 to 65 in 2019, which has translated into a lack of employees in essential areas of direct service to citizens.

In fact, the This entity's budget summary for 2021 recognizes that "despite the fact that the population of Puerto Rico is shrinking, our statistics continue to increase due to the poor services received from the agencies that must provide them."

On the other On the other hand, in the Women's Prosecutor's Office, the reduction in ten years has been 18%, with a decrease in personnel of 30%. This office, Díaz explained, does not currently have attorneys and lawyers to Legal representation and has only one inspector.

"The way it is compensating is increasing the number of temporary employees instead of career employees. This reflects that there is also a degradation of employment conditions", explained.

The Enabling Law for the Office of the Women's Ombudsman also establishes that regional, district or municipal offices must be established to facilitate women's access to these services. However, at the moment there is only the central office in San Juan, and in the proposed budget for next year there are no changes in sight.

In the Office of the Patient, the budget reduction has been 49% in ten years . Similarly, it has seen a decrease of 58% in its personnel, from 52 in 2012 to December 22, 2019.

The analysis maintains that said entity does not have an auxiliary attorney for legal affairs and needs urgently hiring researchers, lawyers and doctors. All of the above is reflected in the ability to handle calls and complaints. In 2010, for example, there were 10,000 complaints attended to, but in 2018 only 1,900 were attended to.

In 2016 the electronic system of that office collapsed, which is where a database is kept on the population that is attending, the number of cases and complaints. At the moment, the system has not been restored.

“The item that the Fiscal Control Board or the government allocates for the next budget does not allow addressing any of these situations. If it is not reduced, the previous sum is maintained, an amount with which it is hardly possible to sustain the functions of these offices, "Díaz said.

A" social protection floor "is urgently needed

Budgetary declines have also affected the General Court of Justice, which has seen a 16% reduction since 2010. All of the above is contrary to what is expected in the framework of human rights, which is progress and enlargement. "What we hope to see is that the resources that are directed increase or that they become more efficient, not the opposite," said the analyst.

"The Promesa law clearly limits you with that lack of definition of essential services, but there is nothing that prevents the government, of its own accord, to define those essential services and go further through that protection of certain populations and certain services that must be maintained and must be protected, "he pointed out Daniel Santamaría senior public policy analyst for Open Spaces.

In the same direction, the executive director and founder of Legal Aid, Ariadna Godreau Aubert, noted that “there has been a ball pass between the Fiscal Control Board and the Central Government and no one has wanted to assume responsibility for defining a social protection floor. This, on the one hand, shows us that the government of Puerto Rico has given up on its responsibility to demand a floor for social protection of fundamental rights. ”

The analysis also concluded that although the budget maintains the same heading as the present one fiscal year for a government agency or entity, or similar, when looking at the origin of the resources there is an increase in dependence on federal funds, while the amount of state funds decreases.

“The problem with that is that the subsidies Federal governments have limitations, they tend to be for specific programs, they cannot attend to certain controversies or they are subject to political-partisan sway, "Díaz explained.

Marked reduction in the period of public hearings

This panorama of budgetary reductions and access to justice is developed at the same time that it also diminishes the space of time for the discussion of the games in views

Open Spaces observed that prior to the entry into force of the Promesa law in 2016, which imposed the presence of the Fiscal Oversight Board (JSF), there were between 40 and 60 days of discussion of the budget in the government, but the budgets from 2017 to 2020 only had between two and three weeks of discussion. The entity also found a worse trend: the budget for fiscal year 2021 has only had four days of discussion.

Likewise, before the Promesa law came into force, there were between 30 and 60 days of public hearings, but the Budgets from 2017 to 2020 had between one and two weeks, while for the next fiscal year there have only been two days.

Even so, the House of Representatives approved on Wednesday night a draft hybrid budget between the plans presented by the JSF and the government. The budget approved by the lower house was $ 10,045 million, the figure proposed by the fiscal entity.

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