Bill to augment legal aid provisions clears House
By John McPhaul
The island House of Representatives on Wednesday night approved House Bill 25, authored by the minority leader of the New Progressive Party delegation, Carlos “Johnny” Méndez Núñez, which creates the “Law for the Voluntary Panel of Compensated Attorneys in Criminal Proceedings Held in the General Court of Justice of Puerto Rico” with the purpose of providing greater access to justice to people with limited economic resources during various stages of a trial, as well as providing justice in compensation to the lawyers who process such cases.
The bill now goes to the Senate for evaluation.
“This is an advanced bill that allows us to assist our people, expanding access to justice. We believe that it is the obligation of the State to provide the resources and establish the pertinent mechanisms so that defendants in criminal proceedings have access to adequate legal representation, in those cases in which they cannot afford it,” Méndez Núñez said. “Therefore, it should not fall exclusively on the shoulders of the legal profession. That is why the Voluntary Panel of Compensated Lawyers in Criminal Proceedings is very important.”
The measure, which is co-authored by House Speaker Rafael “Tatito” Hernández Montañez and Rep. Orlando Aponte Rosario, also establishes that the new “Panel” will be attached to the Legal Aid Society and will have the responsibility of implementing a system of compensated legal representation to provide its services to low-income citizens through the appointment of lawyers from private practice.
The resources for the panel’s operation of the Panel will be paid from the funds from sales of the special suspension stamp, as provided by the Tariffs Law.
For years, it has been denounced that there are many cases in which public defenders do not have either the financial capacity to be able to hire a reliable expert, or to be able to carry out a thorough investigation in cases to which they are assigned.
In order to create a uniform system for the appointment of public defenders in criminal proceedings, on June 30, 1998, the Puerto Rico Supreme Court promulgated the Regulations for the Assignment of Public Lawyers in Criminal Proceedings.
Four years after its implementation, at the 22nd Judicial Conference of Puerto Rico, the need to carry out an evaluation of the effectiveness of the recently created public court system was confirmed. Consequently, the Supreme Court created the Committee for the Study of the Assignment of Lawyers and Legal Professionals with the task of evaluating, collecting information, analyzing it and submitting a report with its recommendations and findings. On March 4, 2005, the committee issued its report and recommendations.
Among the conclusions of the report in question, it appeared that the lawyers who practice criminal law privately and who are obliged to provide legal services have assumed an extremely burdensome case load, since it is not distributed equitably among all the members of the legal profession.
“The duty imposed on criminal lawyers has transcended the limits of what is reasonable; therefore a new system must be configured that is not burdensome or discriminatory for the small group of the legal profession that handles cases that are criminal in nature,” the committee said in the report.