Legal Aid Attys Chart Course For 2021 After Spike In Demand

By Justin Wise
December 6, 2020

The coronavirus pandemic and the economic downturn it caused sparked a massive spike in demand for legal aid services from America's most marginalized communities, leaving a field already under-resourced facing even greater strain in 2020.

At the same time, many organizations had to close their offices in the spring and significantly reduce in-person communication with clients to comply with health guidelines. It all amounted to a "pretty crushing" year in which attorneys transitioned to a primarily remote operation with new channels including a COVID-19 legal intake line, Southeast Louisiana Legal Services Executive Director Laura Tuggle said.

Tuggle said 3 in 4 of the calls on the SLLS hotline are from people seeking assistance on matters relating to housing and evictions. Overall, the group has had a 300% increase in eviction cases this year. It also had a 600% increase in unemployment assistance cases in the first few months of the pandemic.

"The overwhelming majority of the cases are African American women raising their children," she said. "Marginalized folks are struggling."

The picture is similar across the country for legal service providers that generally offer assistance in civil cases to clients who are at least 125% below the poverty line, according to the American Bar Association. Funds for these groups come from philanthropic, federal and state efforts, including from the Legal Services Corp., a nonprofit that touts itself as the largest funder of civil legal aid.

In July, an LSC survey found an 18% increase in the number of people eligible for civil legal assistance.

Looking ahead to 2021, leaders of legal aid groups said they were concerned about how they would continue to get sufficient financial resources, even as the number of Americans facing eviction threats has the potential to skyrocket. A report prepared for the National Council of State Housing Agencies said more than 8 million renter households "could experience an eviction filing" by January, after a temporary national moratorium expires.

"The most pressing legal need America faces as we enter 2021 is the tsunami of potential evictions that threaten the millions of people who have lost jobs during the pandemic," LSC Executive Director Ronald Flagg said, pointing to a study showing that evictions can cause increases in COVID-19 cases and deaths.

Flagg called for "an immediate infusion of far greater financial support for civil legal aid" in 2021, as well as a reform to the structure of the civil justice system to make it more "accessible to people who are unable to afford counsel."

Radhika Singh, the chief of civil legal services at the National Legal Aid & Defender Association, a leading advocate for increased LSC funding, noted that legal aid support should be considered a layer of the federal pandemic response.

From "housing programs to health care access, all of those needs include funding for legal aid," she said. Representatives from NLADA said the group is urging the incoming Biden administration and the new Congress to significantly increase the amount of federal dollars going to legal aid programs and public defender services next year.

In addition to matters pertaining to unemployment and housing, attorneys noted that problems associated with poverty cause jumps in domestic violence. Franchesca Hamilton-Acker, a senior attorney who focuses on child abuse and neglect for the Louisiana-based Acadiana Legal Services Corp., told Law360 she's expecting a sustained uptick in these types of cases.

"It's a spiral," she said. "Unemployment lends to problems involving being able to take care of basic needs. Violence takes shape in those sorts of situations often."

"I believe any issue that attacks the security of the family would be an issue ripe for addressing as we move into 2021," she added. "Abuse, financial security and of course basic needs, [they all have] a direct correlation."

Tuggle of the SLLS added that a wave of consumer debt issues is on the horizon because of COVID-19, as well as an increasingly competitive labor market. Formerly incarcerated people who already struggle to get jobs could face even more hardships, she said, adding that systemic change around expunging criminal records is something the SLLS would like to see movement on.

Christina Swarns, executive director of The Innocence Project, a nonprofit that works to free wrongfully convicted prisoners, also said that this past year "painfully, and powerfully, reminded" the country that racial inequality "continues to corrupt the administration of criminal justice."

"The exoneration cases confirm this reality as the majority of innocent people wrongfully convicted of crimes are Black and [Latino]," she said. "In 2021, I want to see a commitment to enacting laws, policies and practices that address the arbitrary role that race plays in the administration of justice."

Whether legal service providers can continue to handle the increasing caseload remains top of mind for many officials. While the chasm between the demand and the allotted resources has been a persistent problem for years, that gap is "only widening" amid the pandemic, Hamilton-Acker said.

State-based programs responsible for helping fund legal aid service providers in May projected major revenue losses, including from the Interest on Lawyer Trust Accounts program, a key aid component for many providers. IOLTA collects the interest attorneys earn on some of the client money they hold in pooled bank accounts. The earned interest goes to state IOLTA programs to help fund legal services aid, but the interest rates on which the IOLTA funding relies were slashed in the spring amid the pandemic's economic fallout.

Meanwhile, attorneys are facing a constant demand that is showing no signs of even marginally decreasing.

"I was a staff attorney when Hurricane Katrina hit. And never in my lifetime did I think I would go through anything like that," Tuggle said. "But I was wrong, because COVID is the same type of feeling except it never shuts off.

"This is just a nonstop extremely slow-moving constant hurricane, because every day the crisis is still here. Who knows when it's going to end."

--Additional reporting by Jack Karp. Editing by Orlando Lorenzo.

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