Legal Aid Society lawyers have not seen a raise in nine years
By Alejandra M. Jover Tovar
Under the midday sun, a group of unionized lawyers from the Legal Aid Society (SAL, for its Spanish acronym) protested in front of the agency’s building for better salaries and more personnel.
The purpose of the SAL is to provide free legal services to the indigent population and those who cannot afford an attorney in criminal cases. Attorney Rocio Revelles explained that “everyone has the right to legal representation, which is constitutional, and in the past we were over 100 lawyers. Right now, we are about 70 for the 13 judicial regions of this country.”
“That includes all types of cases, protection orders, juvenile cases, criminal cases...,” she continued. “Many lawyers are quitting because of low salaries, and the lawyers have to see their cases plus those of juveniles and people who have the need but do not have the economic capacity.”
A lawyer at SAL starts with an annual $36,000 salary “That is not enough with the cost of living in this country, and many people require legal assistance to have a first-class representation.”
Revelles added, “we have been trying to negotiate an agreement for months, and they refuse to give us those raises. The Legal Aid administration and the Board of Directors refuse to negotiate. They refuse to recognize one’s work and give us the raises we deserve. We have not received a raise since 2013.”
Rubén Parrilla Rodríguez, president of the Union of Lawyers for the Society for Legal Assistance, said, “we have been in collective bargaining agreement discussions for a year, demanding a salary increase and better fringe benefits. Management initially offered a $100 monthly increase; the basic salary is $36,000 and can go up to $76,000, but to reach that, you have to have been working 25 years. In addition, no raises are received until collective bargaining agreements are negotiated.”
“We have lawyers who have not received raises for 10 years, as a result of the hurricanes, the earthquakes, the economic crisis and the Fiscal Oversight and Management Board (FOMB.) Collective bargaining was paralyzed, but that has already expired; the SAL as an institution received an increase of $677,000 in its budget, but they have refused to discuss pay increases for us.”
“What we want is for they to sit down with us, that the executive director, Felix Velez Alejandro, who has never sat down with us to talk, stop sending third parties, and sit down to negotiate. We want to move management to sit down and talk with us. The longer this collective bargaining takes, the longer you have to be with the basic salary,” said Parrilla.
At one point, the SAL had 120 lawyers, but now they’re down to 76. In some regions, the lack of personnel is critical: Caguas has only two lawyers, and Fajardo has one, “handling all the matters simultaneously,” denounced Parrilla.
“The Department of Justice, which handles criminal cases, increased its staff of attorneys for domestic violence cases by almost 100 prosecutors, and this week they increased 13 prosecutors for drug court cases. At the very least, it should be proportional to the increase,” he said.