Puerto Rico's Legal Services office faces $5 million in federal budget cuts next year, a reduction that officials say will force attorneys to drop thousands of civil cases in this U.S. territory where nearly half the people live in poverty.
The budget cuts are occurring at a national level, but the 32 percent decrease announced for Puerto Rico is the largest compared to cuts facing U.S. states, executive director Charles Hey Maestre said Thursday. He added that the funds being cut represent a fourth of the organization's budget.
"The cuts are of such magnitude that if we don't address them with funds from Puerto Rico or some other entity, all our services will be affected," he said. "We are basically the law firm for Puerto Rico's poor."
Puerto Rico Legal Services provides free legal aid to low-income Puerto Ricans seeking help in civil cases ranging from domestic violence to evictions to veteran issues.
The cuts come as the Legal Services Corporation in Washington says it is struggling to operate this year on a $348 million budget, its lowest ever in inflation-adjusted dollars. President Jim Sandman said the Senate is expected to debate next month a proposal to further cut the budget to $402 million for fiscal year 2013.
"The consequences have been devastating," Sandman said, noting that officials expected to lay off more than 1,200 staffers and close at least 24 offices across the U.S.
He said Puerto Rico ended up receiving the biggest cut because of a formula that distributes money based on the number of people living in poverty. The U.S. saw an overall increase in poverty while Puerto Rico reported an 8 percent drop even though it still has the highest percentage of people living in poverty _ roughly 45 percent of its nearly 4 million inhabitants. The island also has a nearly 15 percent unemployment rate, the highest compared with any U.S. state.
Every year, about 70,000 people call the Caribbean island's legal services office seeking help. Last year, lawyers worked on 33,400 cases, including many about unlawful evictions and custody cases, Hey said.
He estimates attorneys will have to drop at least 7,000 cases as a result of the looming cuts.
Maricarmen Carrillo, a lawyer who works in the capital of San Juan, said the majority of her clients are women, especially those who have been victims of domestic violence. She worries that many will be left without an attorney and will not seek the help they need.
Puerto Rico Legal Services operates on a $19 million budget, 78 percent of which comes from U.S. federal funds.