"Legal, psychological, or social advice and representation are provided free of charge"

Roberth Puertas, manager of the Fabián Ponce Ordóñez pro bono foundation in Ecuador, tells us about the work of the organization and how it make a difference to the lives of children, adolescents and refugees, as well as letting us in on the judicial and legislative reform projects the foundation plan to become involved in.

Posted Wednesday, November 17th 2021
"Legal, psychological, or social advice and representation are provided free of charge"

Roberth Puertas

Leaders League: When was the foundation established and why did you decide to create it? 

Roberth Puertas: The foundation was created in 1987 to unify and coordinate Pérez Bustamante & Ponce’s pro bono and community work. The foundation was created because in Ecuador there were no public defenders for those who could not afford a lawyer. In addition, there was high demand for our services from vulnerable and/or at-risk individuals and groups who were discriminated against because of their financial and social conditions.

A public defender's office has operated since 2010, but high demand for free legal advice and representation makes our pro bono work still essential. After 34 years in existence, our services continue to be necessary for those vulnerable and/or at-risk individuals or groups who want to resolve their conflicts and change their lives. 

What kind of work do you do? 

The foundation has four lines of action: Protection of rights through the Interdisciplinary Clinic; access to justice through the dispute mediation center; training, promotion, and communication of legal and social issues of relevance to the country and support to NGOs and the community with pro bono legal advice and representation. Since 2016, the foundation has been part of the Red Pro Bono de las Américas. 

The clinic provides comprehensive responses (legal-psychological-social) to the problems of its users. Legal, psychological, or social advice and representation are provided free of charge to vulnerable and/or at-risk individuals and groups. More than 10,000 hours of annual pro-bono work are devoted to handling over 1,500 cases in the clinic, especially in family (domestic violence, child abuse), criminal, labor, tenancy, and civil matters. 

The dispute mediation center annually handles more than 600 cases with a success rate of over 90%. Furthermore, since 2015, the foundation has hosted its Primero el Diálogo (Dialogue First) Campaign, in which 1,672 talks on the 4 pillars of dialogue have been given to 68,690 people from 297 institutions as at October 2021. 

Which cases that have generated the most impact? 

Each of our services is designed to have a significant impact on the lives of citizens and the country. With the interdisciplinary clinic, the mediation center, and the Primero el Diálogo campaign, we can safely say that we have made a collective, individual and social impact.

For example, throughout the course of 2021, we have been able to establish child support for 1,900 children and adolescents. In domestic violence, sexual abuse and child abuse cases, this year, we have accompanied the victims with counseling, legal representation, and psychological and social assistance to help them face the multiple consequences of the violence suffered and give them the support they need to rebuild their lives. 

In mediation, to date in 2021, we have concluded 548 agreements for a cumulative value exceeding $750,000, with which the community has access to a fast, low-cost, peaceful and collaborative justice service. 

In addition to lawyers, what kinds of professionals work with you? Do you work with lawyers from other firms or companies in addition to PBP members? 

All our attorneys are members of the PBP law firm. In addition, due to the high demand for the Foundation's services, PBP has designated a group of full-time attorneys to the Foundation. Moreover, by signing the “Declaración de trabajo pro bono para las Américas”, we are committed to ensuring that each attorney works at least 20 pro-bono hours per year. 

We are aware that legal responses alone for multi-causal problems such as mistreatment, sexual abuse and domestic violence are limited and have a low impact on the victims' lives. Because of this, our comprehensive responses through the Foundation's services are augmented  by a team of psychologists and social workers which, in 1994, led us to transform the legal clinic into an interdisciplinary one.  

Have you done joint work with public institutions? 

From 2000 to 2008, we collaborated with the Ecuadorian State and UNHCR to assist with the high flow of refugees that arrived in Ecuador as a result of the Colombian conflict. We managed to help over 50,000 people. 

Between 2018-2019 we collaborated with the Municipality of Quito to provide professional assistance,  to girls and adolescents who were victims of sexual abuse. 

We have an agreement with the Undersecretary of Education of the Metropolitan District of Quito through 2025, to bring the Primero el Diálogo campaign to high-school students, teachers and parents of the District's educational institutions. 

Also, since 2018, we have an agreement with the Pontificia Universidad Católica del Ecuador, one of the largest and most prestigious universities in the country, that allows students to participate as promoters of the Primero el Diálogo campaign. 

What did the foundation do work during the pandemic? 

During the first 15 days of the pandemic, we were closed by order of the authorities who decreed a quarantine. After, the demand, especially for family issues, forced us to reinvent ourselves and implement new communication and customer service channels for our users. Quickly, we went from providing face-to-face attention to offering our services via landline, cell phone, mobile applications, e-mail, social media, and videoconferencing platforms. We also began to conduct online mediations and give talks for the Primero el Diálogo campaign via Zoom or Teams. All these technological changes led us to handle, on average, 30% more cases than we did in pre-pandemic times. 

What projects do you expect to carry out next year? 

Based on the results obtained with the addition of new technological tools and the annual increase in the number of cases, our next projects will focus on the continuous improvement of our communication channels, which include redesigning the website and automating processes for user service. We are also looking to improve knowledge and document management. All this will help us increase the number of cases we can handle annually. 

We are seeking the means and resources to expand the outreach of the Primero el Diálogo campaign, so that soon we may have a significant number of people in the country (over a million) who use and promote the campaign's tools for resolving disputes through dialogue. 

With the experience and knowledge gained in these 34 years of service to the community, we hope to work in the medium term on judicial reform and legislative reform in a systematic and intensive way, seeking to expand the reach of our services.