A study unveiled by Legal Aid Puerto Rico confirmed the “urgent need” to insert into the discussion of the government’s budget for next fiscal year how austerity policies affect access to justice.
Legal Aid Puerto Rico Executive Director Ariadna Godreau-Aubert and the organization’s public policy analyst, Nicole Díaz-González, presented the “Access to justice as a priority: Defense of rights in times of austerity” report, prepared by the organization to encourage a public discussion on the issue.
“It’s urgent that austerity analyzes are not purely about dollars and cents but take into account how they violate the possibility of having a decent roof, accessible education, quality jobs and everything else that is necessary to have a decent life,” Godreau-Aubert said.
Meanwhile, Díaz-González cited as an example how the Judicial Branch has not provided an analysis of how the closure of 20 courtrooms, some located in the island’s poorest municipalities, has affected access to justice.
“Austerity has been blind because it doesn’t see where it’s cutting and who it’s affecting,” she warned.
Furthermore, she mentioned how the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management and Economic Stability Act (PROMESA) has kept a stay on litigation against the Commonwealth, including lawsuits filed over the use of excessive police force, and discrimination in the workplace and in other areas, such as education, without an analysis of its impact on access to justice.
Díaz-González also noted that the Society for Legal Assistance, which provides free legal services to those facing criminal proceedings, and the Legal Services Corp., which provides free legal services in civil cases, suffer from the constant threat of budget cutbacks and “have been affected not only in the quality of services but also in the conditions” for those who work there.
“It’s possible that the government is in a situation that forces it to make economic adjustments. But it’s not acceptable for these adjustments to always be made blindly or in favor of those who benefit from the austerity measures,” said Godreau-Aubert.
She explained that indiscriminate austerity “ends up undermining fundamental rights to give way to impunity, to the shutdown of courts, to the criminalization of the right to protest and to the closure of schools and ombudsman’s offices, where vulnerable populations historically go to seek solutions.”