ABA Task Force Chief On Meeting The Challenge Of COVID-19

By RJ Vogt | March 22, 2020, 8:02 PM EDT

Jim Sandman experienced plenty of disasters during the nine years he served as president of the Legal Services Corp., the nation’s largest funder of civil legal aid.

Jim Sandman is leading the American Bar Association's task force on the coronavirus pandemic. (Annie Pancak | Law360)

Last week, he said the legal needs associated with those crises — ranging from 2012’s Hurricane Sandy to the wildfires that ravaged California in 2018 — pale in comparison to the expected effects of the novel coronavirus, the rapidly spreading infection that has paralyzed the global economy and killed 202 Americans as of Friday afternoon.

“There is nothing in my memory that compares to this,” Sandman told Law360. “Previous disasters were regional or local. This is national in scope, and it affects every level and aspect of society.”

Having stepped down from his LSC post in January, Sandman was tapped this month to head the American Bar Association’s Task Force on Legal Needs Arising Out of the 2020 Pandemic.

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

Here, Sandman discusses the group’s plans for responding to the unfolding crisis and outlines the areas of legal needs that he thinks will be most affected by the virus.

“I hope that we will look back on this situation to say this brought out the best in our profession,” he said.

How does the coronavirus affect legal aid organizations?

Many legal aid organizations — most, or maybe even all right now — are functioning remotely. They're not conducting business as usual with the typical kinds of outreach and accessibility they have to their clients. They've had to completely revamp the way they do business.

And it's hard, because many legal aid organizations were not set up to have all of their staff working remotely. They don't have the same tools available to them that they would have if they were working with their offices. So in every respect, their ability to serve their clients is different this week from what it was last week.

What areas of civil legal aid do you expect to be most affected?

I anticipate that there will be new benefits coming online as a result of federal and state relief packages. People are going to need help in navigating them, figuring out what kind of assistance is available to whom.

There will be insurance issues, particularly about things like unemployment insurance, and a variety of legal issues related to the need for health care and perhaps people's inability to afford health care.

And unfortunately, in a situation like this where people are stressed and where they are confined to their homes, domestic violence increases. I expect to see an upturn of people in need of protection orders, who may find it more difficult to get them quickly because of the inaccessibility of legal services and possibly due to changes in court operations.

Another unexpected effect of coronavirus: The Fed's decision to lower interest rates to almost zero has a very negative impact on funding through interest on lawyer trust accounts, which is an important source of funding for civil legal aid in all 50 states. My understanding is that the reduction in the interest rates implemented by the Fed will result in a reduction of $1 million a month in IOLTA funding in Texas alone.

What criminal legal issues do you think will be most affected?

The task force will include people from both a public defense and prosecutor community. One obvious impact is delays in court proceedings and the effect on detention of people who may have been charged but are awaiting trial. That’s going to be a significant issue. Also, access to counsel for those folks that are in prison — a lot of places are no longer allowing visitors, including attorneys.

What will the task force do to help people in need?

One thing our ABA task force will be doing is disseminating news nationwide so that everyone has access to information about what other jurisdictions have done that will make advocacy easier for lawyers who are trying, for example, to get stays of evictions in jurisdictions where halts have not yet been implemented.

We will also be mobilizing pro bono resources and doing everything we can to match volunteers to needs and to recruit as many volunteer pro bono lawyers from across the country as we can to supplement the limited resources of legal aid lawyers and others.

I also think that we can play a useful role in equipping lawyers in all kinds of practices to work remotely. Lawyers are going to need some assistance in adapting to a new way of doing their work. There are tools available that can make working remotely much more effective and efficient, but people need to know what those tools are and get some help implementing them in their home environments.

How could the pandemic change the way legal services are provided going forward?

Necessity is the mother of invention: I think this crisis could lead to services being remotely accessible to people in ways that they haven't been in the past.

It's going to compel people who are providing service to triage and figure out how to get help to the people most in need. And that's always a challenge in the world of legal aid where resources are inadequate to meet needs. But it could help people in the long run make better informed decisions using data about what is effective and how to identify who should get what level of help.

Another positive consequence of this virus is that people may become more efficient using technology. I anticipate innovation and creative thinking to come out of this crisis.

--Editing by Aaron Pelc.

All Access is a series of discussions with leaders in the access to justice field. Questions and answers have been edited for length and clarity.

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

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