Foundation urges approval of bills to fund legal aid for low-income citizens

By John McPhaul

The Access to Justice Fund Foundation on Monday urged the island House of Representatives to approve three bills that are up for consideration in the lower chamber, which would help provide the organization with the necessary resources to continue subsidizing legal services initiatives free to vulnerable populations.

Currently, the foundation, or Fundación Fondo de Acceso a la Justicia (FFAJ), supports 29 access-to-justice projects throughout Puerto Rico’s 78 municipalities, and has four main programs that offer free civil legal services, such as: prevention of foreclosures and evictions, community economic development, legal advice, civil, family and administrative services and the Charles Hey Maeste Scholarship.

“The approval of these bills should be a priority for the Legislative Assembly at this time. Not only because they are measures to address poverty in Puerto Rico, but because they seek real solutions to the dramatic decrease in funds that would affect civil legal services offered through various non-profit entities that the FFAJ subsidizes,” said José Enrique Colón Santana, president of the foundation, in a written communication.

Likewise, the entity financially supports four organizations in projects that serve women survivors of gender violence, and if the legislation is not approved, they run the risk of not being able to continue offering services. The organizations are the Legal Orientation Line of Casa Protegida Julia de Burgos; legal accompaniment to hearings on protection orders with attorneys from the Legal Services Corp.; Taller Salud’s 24/7 guidance and service line; and Casa Juana Colón’s counseling, legal representation, emotional support and art therapy programs in Barranquitas, Aibonito, Coamo, Comerío and Orocovis.

“Given the serious situation of femicides facing Puerto Rico, we must support the entities that offer direct services to survivors of gender violence,” said Amaris Torres Rivera, executive director of the FFAJ. “Through our programs, hundreds of women in Puerto Rico have been able to receive free legal and psychological services. However, these programs may be at risk if these bills are not approved.”

The Access to Justice Fund, created under Law 165-2013, draws, among other sources, from the interest generated by the Interest Accounts in Trust for Lawyers (CIFAA by its Spanish initials). The proposed amendments are intended to help generate the necessary capital for the development of initiatives that guarantee access to justice for all residents of Puerto Rico.

P. de la C. 23 would amend Law 10-1994, which regulates real estate, its professionals or companies, so that the interest generated by the bank accounts where they record prompt payments, good faith deposits or other deposits in trust are transferred to CIFAA accounts, for their subsequent investment in projects of social interest.

Meanwhile, P. de la C. 24 seeks that the funds that are in the custody of the judicial branch and deposited in accounts that do not generate interest for the benefit of minors and the disabled, are also consigned by their custodians in CIFAA accounts.

Similarly, P. de C. 26 would oblige financial institutions, banks, and cooperatives in Puerto Rico to deposit money and other liquid assets that have not been the object of any transaction or claimed for five consecutive years in CIFAA accounts, except for those amounts from share accounts.

The measures were filed on Jan. 4, 2021 by House Speaker Rafael Hernández Montañez, and Carlos Méndez Nuñez, the previous leader of that body. Currently, P. de la C. 23 and P. de la C. 26 are in the Consumer Rights, Banking Services and Insurance Industry Committee chaired by Rep. Estrella Martínez, and P. de la C. 24 is in the Legal and Finance & Budget committees, chaired respectively by Reps. Orlando Aponte Rosario and Jesús Santa Rodríguez.

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