Civil Legal Aid Caseload Growth 'Remarkable' Amid Pandemic

By Tracey Read | December 8, 2022, 1:27 PM EST ·

The COVID-19 pandemic had civil legal aid organizations scrambling to help low-income Americans in 2021, especially in the area of housing.

That's according to a report released Wednesday by the Legal Services Corp., an independent nonprofit established by Congress to provide financial support for civil legal aid to low-income Americans.

The report, which quantifies the work done by 132 legal aid organizations funded by the nonprofit around the country last year, showed that housing cases increased by nearly 26% from the previous year.

The cases closed by grantees in 2021 included 252,436 housing law cases and more than 208,479 family law cases, compared with about 200,398 housing law cases and 204,611 family law cases in 2020.

Historically, family cases had been the most common type of cases closed by grantees.

"An almost [26%] increase is pretty remarkable," Ron Flagg, president of the nonprofit, told Law360 Pulse Wednesday in an interview. "It just really reflects the dynamics of the pandemic — enormous unemployment and estimates of 30 million households being at risk for eviction."

Flagg noted that federal, state and local moratoriums helped put a damper on evictions in 2020 and 2021. In addition, the federal government in 2021 rolled out about $46 billion in emergency rental assistance.

"But none of those things — the eviction moratoria nor the distribution of emergency rental assistance — was accomplished without help, and people often didn't know what resources were available or what rights they would have," he said. "You really needed civil legal aid to help make sure that the beneficiaries of those programs were the intended beneficiaries. And so we see this uptick in 2021."

Flagg added that the U.S. Treasury Department estimated recently that only $7 billion of the $46 billion remains, which doesn't bode well for 2022 statistics, which are expected to be released sometime in the new year.

"I think we're going to see a lot more evictions in the next year," Flagg said.

In 2020, most organizations providing legal services had to close their offices and redevelop their service delivery models to function virtually. The new 2021 data highlighted the ways in which pandemic-related challenges remained.

Another sobering statistic from the most recent report was that grantees reported 148,057 cases involving domestic violence — a 7.3% increase from 2020, continuing an upward trend in domestic violence cases.

"It's a horribly sad situation, but unfortunately, not unexpected," Flagg said. "A pandemic is really the perfect storm when it comes to domestic violence cases. You have extreme health stress, extreme economic stress, and you have public guidance that is keeping people in their homes. You have people under a lot of stress who are being forced to stay in whatever place that they're at. It's just a perfect combination of factors that are conducive, unfortunately, to domestic violence. So, not surprising, but tragic."

Legal aid organizations closed 713,393 cases in 2021, up from 659,164 in 2020. Pro bono attorneys closed 43,939, or 6.3%, of those cases, according to the report.

Flagg said he believed that the rebound in pro bono cases last year reflected the fact that in 2020, there was a decline in many cases just because the courts weren't open for much of the year.

In 2021, organizations receiving money from the Legal Services Corp. served over 1.7 million clients and their household members. Among named clients, 72% identified as women and 19.4% were age 60 or older.

--Editing by Karin Roberts.

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