Protection orders and requests for relocation of minors are seen in municipal halls, which had priority in the plan to resume operations of the Judicial Branch, following the passage of Hurricane Maria last September 20th. (horizontal-x3)
Protection orders and requests for relocation of minors are seen in municipal halls, which had priority in the plan to resume operations of the Judicial Branch, following the passage of Hurricane Maria last September 20th. (Juan Luis Martínez)

The institutional, economic and social crisis that Puerto Rico faces after the destruction caused by Hurricane Maria is reflected in cases that reach the Judicial Branch. During the past three weeks, it has addressed 442 requests for orders of protection for gender-based violence and 305 requests for relocation of minors.

These two issues, in addition to hearing for cause to arrest (Rule 6), have kept the attention of judges and prosecutors who have been active after the strike of the cyclone, according to official statistics of the Judicial Branch.

"We saw a lot of family issues related to the transfer of minors and the request of one of the parents to move their children out of Puerto Rico, but there was disagreement between the parties on this issue," explained Judge Sigfrido Steidel, director of the Courts Administration Office (OAT, Spanish acronym).

The issue of emigration after the cyclone was discussed publicly again yesterday, when Governor Ricardo Rosselló warned that the Department of Education has lost between 3,700 and 3,800 students who left for the United States.

Previously, officials and school and colleges spokespersons in the state of Florida had talked about the amount of Puerto Ricans who have migrated and the aid they need.

A report issued by Florida’s Governor, Rick Scott, six days ago pointed out that more than 27,000 people had arrived in that state from the Island.

With regard to cases of gender-based violence, several organizations had already anticipated a rise due to the increase in unemployment and  lack of housing.

Normalizing tasks

Protection orders and requests for relocation of minors are seen in municipal halls, which had priority in the plan to resume operations of the Judicial Branch, following the passage of Hurricane Maria last September 20th.

Allegations, requests for stalking and requests for voluntary applications are seen in the municipal rooms as well. It also includes Law 140, which deals with issues that may be resound during natural disasters, such as disputes over adjacencies, custody of minors and disputes between landlords and tenants.

"To us, that seemed to be the urgent thing, because they are the issues that come to the investigation rooms, which are like emergency rooms in  court," pointed out Steidel.

They also activated the personnel of the Pro-Se Litigant Access Program and the division of mediators. "We wanted them to be available to address issues that, by  nature, could go to mediation, such as disputes between neighbors over the management of debris or noise from power plants," he expressed.

The immediate action –the very same Sunday after the strike of the hurricane- was to activate the Judicial Center of Caguas, which became a kind of "shelter" from which municipal affairs and extraordinary resources of 10 judicial regions were addressed, with the exception of Aguadilla, Mayagüez and Arecibo.

Subsequently, the functions were extended to a model similar to the one currently in place, where the 13 judicial regions are operating, three of them in alternate rooms due to the structural damage suffered by the judicial centers.

Steidel indicated that the judicial centers of Arecibo, Ponce, Mayagüez, Carolina and San Juan are operating with electric power. The latter two centers operate with intermittent service. "In the regions that are operating with plants, we have established an appropriate schedule for us and for the other components, such as the Office of the Prosecutor," he added.

Since Monday -and before the slow advances in the restoration of energy-, law courts began to operate the secretariats, which enable the receipt and filing of motions and other essential legal procedures to recover the order in the calendar and to resume pending processes.

Immediate activation

Given the first reports that Maria would hit Puerto Rico directly, the Department of Justice -an essential component of the judicial system- designed a work plan that went from protecting all the sensitive data that they keep in their archives until determining where each one of its components would work in order to avoid paralization of work.

Justice has a workforce of over 700 employees, including more than 90 lawyers and 300 prosecutors. The headquarters of the agency, in Miramar (San Juan), was destroyed, so they are working to find a new building.

"Prosecutors were the staff who worked 24/7, during and after Maria. They had a well-structured plan," explained Justice Secretary, Wanda Vázquez.

Several of the prosecution offices -most of them located in judicial centers- were affected by winds and rains. The immediate alternative was to move their duties to police stations, where some still work, four weeks after the hurricane.

"It was a very curious and collaborative process, because the police and the judges were at the stations and the cases were seen there," pointed out Vázquez.

That scenario occurred, for example, in the communes of Aibonito, Guayama, Ponce, Humacao and Bayamón. "This is how we continue to function, investigate and prosecute criminal cases with judges and prosecutors on duty," expressed the head of justice.

Meanwhile, the personnel that was not on duty was reactivated the first Monday after the hurricane, with the purpose to begin work to learn the whereabouts of co-workers and determine their needs. The next step was to assign them to tasks related to the recovery and distribution of food.

 Some, she said, were assigned to collection centers, others to the Food Bank and those with English proficiency were at the call center of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

At a safe pace

Returning to a regular schedule after over a month of delay will not only take time, but it will also depend greatly on the recovery of the Island and the particular needs of each judicial region.

The judicial centers of Aguadilla, Bayamón and Guayama suffered severe damage to their structures, so their functions could be moved to other areas for a longer term. There is still no overall estimate of the damage.

"Each region is going to have a different pace, because the damage is different in each region, the number of cases are different and, therefore, the dynamics of the regions in legal terms are different," said Steidel.

"What I can tell you is that there is an imoprtant commitment of  all judges, officials, the management team and the presiding judge to try to ensure that normality arrives as soon as possible, with the least possible dislocation," pointed out the judge. 


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