The past month has been a whirlwind of meetings for Charles Hey-Maestre, executive director of Puerto Rico Legal Services Inc. Since the U.S. House of Representatives voted on Feb. 19 to cut $70 million from the budget for the Legal Services Corp., Hey-Maestre has been in talks with his organization’s board of directors and two employee unions to prepare for reductions.
Administrators are weighing numerous options, including shuttering three or four of the group’s 17 offices around the island, employee furloughs, pay cuts and eliminating the corporate contribution to worker 401(k) plans.
Puerto Rico Legal Services receives the single largest annual grant from LSC — nearly $19 million for 2010 — and that federal money accounts for 84% of its total budget.
“If these cuts are approved, we’d lose approximately $3.4 million,” he said. “To cut that during the year we’re already operating in is equivalent to a 24% cut because it’s concentrated in the last nine months or so. It’s inevitable that we’d have to cut services. We’ve been debating that, but there’s not a lot to cut.”
Starting attorneys at Puerto Rico Legal Services earn $2,500 a month, meaning that pay cuts would be hard to stomach. Closing any of organization’s smaller offices would essentially eliminate access to legal representation for people without cars in isolated mountain communities, he said.
Hey-Maestre is hardy the only legal aid administrator wringing his hands over proposed cuts, but in Puerto Rico there are few other legal aid groups to serve the indigent.
Demand for the organization’s services is high. Approximately one-half of Puerto Rico’s nearly 4 million residents qualify for legal aid, and the island’s median household income is the lowest among U.S. states and commonwealths, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. (Mississippi was the lowest-ranked state in 2009 with a median household income of $36,646, compared to $18,314 for Puerto Rico).
Puerto Rico Legal Services received $3.3 million from the Puerto Rican government this year on top of its LSC funding. An additional $690,000 came from a variety of other sources, but the group is almost entirely dependant on government funding, Hey-Maestre said.
Puerto Rico is the only U.S. jurisdiction that lacks an Interest on Lawyers’ Trust Accounts (IOLTA) system. Those systems allocate a portion of the interest derived from certain lawyer trust accounts to organizations that provide legal services to indigent people.
“It’s a culmination of ignorance and IOLTA being low on the totem pole of issues,” Hey-Maestre said. “There’s resistance from the private bar — not so much among the larger firms, but from the small practitioners which make up most of the lawyers here.”
Moreover, the island lacks a voting member in Congress to protect its interests, and Puerto Rico’s tax base is weaker than those of the 50 states, he said.
Puerto Rico Legal Services has begun to generate money by opening its internal continuing legal education training to outside attorneys for a fee, and by collecting attorney fees from opponents when it prevails in court, but that money is just a drop in the bucket, Hey-Maestre said.
Puerto Ricans in need of civil legal representation have few options beyond the organization, which closed nearly 40,000 cases in 2010. The island’s four law schools run small legal clinics, and private attorneys perform pro bono work through the local bar association — although that program is partially funded through Puerto Rico Legal Services’ federal grant.
Hey-Maestre acknowledged that the organization’s nearly $19 million grant might appear high to outsiders, but said that Puerto Rico’s high rate of poverty and its lack of legal aid options mean that it’s not getting too big a piece of the federal funding pie. “Since we’re essentially the only game in town, the amount of money we receive is not undue,” he said. “It’s our fair share.”
Karen Sloan can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.