ABA Assembles Task Force On COVID-19 Legal Needs

By RJ Vogt | March 13, 2020, 8:57 PM EDT

Debt collection suits, evictions, insurance and government benefits claims — legal problems like these are always challenging, especially for low-income people who often lack legal counsel.

But as COVID-19 continues to disrupt the daily lives of millions of Americans, such legal needs are bound to multiply, at a time when obtaining legal counsel could be harder than ever.

In response, the American Bar Association announced Friday that it has launched a group to identify unmet needs and mobilize legal professionals to provide assistance.

ABA President Judy Perry Martinez said in a statement that thousands of Americans are expected to need legal assistance due to the novel coronavirus pandemic that has rattled global financial markets, shut down universities and major league sports, and infected at least 1,875 people across the country as of Friday afternoon.

“In times of crisis, lawyers help,” Martinez said. “With this task force, we will start by looking for where the need is greatest and where we can make the biggest difference for people in dire situations.”

As of Friday, the country is officially in a time of crisis: President Donald Trump declared a national emergency at the White House, unlocking $50 billion in emergency funding. Within the justice system, many courthouses are cancelling trials and urging parties to appear remotely via teleconferencing. At least one legal professional appears to have died from the virus.

As legal aid organizations brace for the impact of COVID-19, they’ll have the ABA task force to look to for guidance. The so-called Task Force on Legal Needs Arising Out of the 2020 Pandemic will be chaired by James J. Sandman, who recently stepped down after nine years as president of the Legal Services Corporation, the nation’s largest funder of civil legal aid.

The group is slated to include experts on disaster response, health law, insurance, and the legal needs of families, according to the ABA announcement. Representatives from the National Center for State Courts, the National Association of Bar Executives and the National Conference of Bar Presidents will participate.

Together, they’ll identify and make recommendations on the most pressing legal needs arising from COVID-19, including both civil and criminal justice issues. Martinez noted that the ABA “literally sets the standard” for volunteer legal services in the U.S.

“The ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct recommend that every lawyer provide at least 50 hours a year of free service to people who are unable to pay,” she added. “It is the highest calling of the legal profession, and with this pandemic, we are proud to offer our services again to our communities in need.”

The task force is not unprecedented: the ABA Young Lawyers Division has a Disaster Legal Services Program that has helped victims in 178 declared disasters since 2007. Representatives of that program will also participate in the task force.

--Editing by Emily Kokoll.

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