Under Pressure: Legal Aid Attys Brace For Virus's Impacts

By Emma Cueto
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Law360 (March 15, 2020, 8:02 PM EDT) --

Amid COVID-19's spread in U.S. communities like New Rochelle, New York, the epicenter of a cluster of cases in the state, legal aid organizations are preparing themselves to navigate office closures and other hurdles caused by the virus. 

As the entire legal industry continues reacting to the spread of COVID-19, the legal aid community is bracing for its expected impact on their services for underserved communities. And in some parts of the country, providers are already weathering the effects.

In California, the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles has been taking proactive measures to disinfect offices, cut down on travel, and plan how best to keep serving the community, according to the organization's pro bono director Phong Wong. The state had nearly 200 cases of the novel coronavirus as of Thursday.

"LAFLA has always kept our doors open," she said. "Through earthquakes, through the fires, through the post-Rodney King riots, we've always kept our doors open. ... Our clients have nowhere to turn to if our doors close, and we are very conscious of that."

The Legal Services Corporation, the country's largest funder of civil legal aid services, has advised providers to use the time available now to develop a plan for how best to continue operations while protecting staff and public health.

Lynn Jennings, an LSC vice president, told Law360 that for many in the legal aid world, disaster planning is familiar territory. But for others, it's a new experience.

"Those who will be most prepared are those who have dealt with a disaster before," she said. "They're battle weary ... but they are prepared."

Jennings stressed that, as with any disaster, the key for legal aid providers is to have a plan before things go wrong.

A 2019 report by LSC's disaster task force recommends that providers develop relationships with community organizations, including public health officials, and strategize how best to ensure continuity of operations long before a disaster hits.

Right now, she said, many legal aid providers are using this time to take those steps before the virus reaches their community.

For providers in places where coronavirus is already spreading, many are already taking precautions — though so far, legal aid providers have stayed open for business.

Legal Services of Hudson Valley, which services Westchester County, where more than 120 people have tested positive for the virus, has remained open but announced on Thursday that it is minimizing in-person meetings and will no longer accept walk-ins at its offices.

Northwest Justice Project in Washington state, where over 350 cases have been confirmed and more than two dozen deaths, has kept its offices open, but advised that legal clinics and community events might be postponed, canceled or reconfigured for telephone access only.

Finding a way to keep providing services at a distance could be key for many organizations.

Tiela Chalmers, CEO and general counsel of the Alameda County Bar Association in the Bay Area, which has so far seen several cases, said that the association's legal aid arm has closed its physical office, which limits its access to the community, even as staff work remotely.

The organization is working with technology company Qase to hopefully have an online system for the public to use up and running in April, but in the meantime, providing services is a challenge. The organization has been trying to learn from programs in states like Montana, where remote access has been important for years, Chalmers said.

Even for organizations who have technology options in place, the outbreak presents hurdles.

The Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles is in many ways already well set up for remote work and also has resources to use video conferencing for community events and clinics, according to Wong. However, the organization is bracing itself to potentially try to make due with fewer people, both in terms of staff and volunteers, she said.

Much of LAFLA's work relies on volunteers, including attorneys working pro bono and law students who pitch in at clinics or handle intake for potential clients. If those volunteers wind up staying away, it will impact LAFLA's services, she said, and indeed the organization has already seen fewer volunteers show up to recent clinics.

Staff is also preparing to see legal issues related to the virus as well, Wong said. Many people in the community might have legal needs surrounding access to health care or services. People who lose income as a result of being sick or being asked to stay home also might face eviction or other problems.

LAFLA is hoping to head off some of those issues by working with officials. It has already reached out to the city about instituting a moratorium on evictions while the public health crisis is underway, and has requested that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement be proactive about considering the needs of immigration detainees, Wong said.

Other legal aid groups have also tried to be proactive about preventing issues for underserved communities, including Legal Aid Society of New York, which has called on the New York City Board of Correction to take steps to prevent the spread of coronavirus in city jails.

The facilities housed an average of 8,300 people on any given day in 2018, the most recent year for which the mayor's office has data available.

"People confined in jails and prisons during outbreaks of infectious disease are particularly vulnerable not only because of the physical environment, including poor ventilation and close proximity, but also because of the profound constraints on self-help imposed by incarceration," LAS said in a letter to the BOC.

"Unlike people in free society, incarcerated people have no access to water or soap for hand-washing, or capacity to seek physical distance, except with the overt assistance of their jailers," the group added.

Jennings said that right now LSC has been staying in contact with grantees, and hopes to promote best practices across the country.

What that looks like, though, can vary from place to place, which is why LSC recommends that legal services providers follow guidelines from local public health officials and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"This is going to get worse before it gets better," she said. "The best thing we can do is to stay on top of it."

Have a story idea for Access to Justice? Reach us at accesstojustice@law360.com.

--Editing by Katherine Rautenberg.

For a reprint of this article, please contact reprints@law360.com.

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