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Law Practice

Jul. 2, 2020

How to meet growing civil legal needs during the pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic and the recent civil unrest are having a disproportionate effect on people in California's low-income communities and is focusing light on, and in many cases exacerbating.

Marr kate web

Kate Marr

Executive Director, Community Legal Aid SoCal (CLA SoCal)

Email: kmarr@clsocal.org

CLA SoCal works to fight injustice by providing compassionate, high-quality, direct legal services and systemic advocacy that creates positive change in communities, with a staff of over 100 serving Orange and Los Angeles Counties.

The COVID-19 pandemic and the recent civil unrest are having a disproportionate effect on people in California's low-income communities and is focusing light on, and in many cases exacerbating, the inequities they continue to face every day. Unable to afford a home of their own, many low-income victims of domestic violence have had no choice but to remain in the home with their abusers -- with few opportunities to reach out for help -- at a time of particularly heightened tension. Low-income undocumented immigrant workers legally employed with Individual Tax Identification Numbers in sectors like the service industry and health care are marked as ineligible to receive federal stimulus funds even though they pay taxes. These are just two examples of the myriad issues people are experiencing related to the pandemic that have legal solutions. How can we address the surge in demand in California for civil legal assistance and representation?

As California navigates the reopening process, demand for legal help is on track to overwhelm the current legal services infrastructure. According to data published on June 19 on the Employment Development Department website, California unemployment in May was 16.3%, which is an unprecedented jump from 4% in February before the pandemic began. While the impact of the pandemic increases and greater numbers of people are thrust into an unfamiliar new reality, the need will continue to grow in issues areas related to unemployment -- evictions, foreclosure, bankruptcy and health care.

This growth in unemployment means more families are eligible for free civil legal services than ever before. In April Gov. Gavin Newsom announced the launch of a new initiative that would connect Californians interested in volunteering with nonprofits and local governments that are experiencing an increased demand for services due to the pandemic. Although the governor did note specific areas of pressing need for volunteers when presenting his initiative to the public, he did not include the urgent need for pro bono attorneys. We must build on what the governor has started to create a statewide infrastructure connecting government agencies, legal aid providers, and the private bar to help those low-income Californians who are disproportionately suffering during this pandemic.

First, it is important to be strategic and assess and address legal needs of each community or region in the state. For example, low-income residents in the coastal cities may identify eviction as one of the most critical legal problems while in the communities of the Central Valley, unfair debt collection or nursing home discharge may emerge as focal issues. Unemployment, foreclosure and medical debt will be key issues for all low-income communities. Priority issues will vary from region to region on issues such as immigration, while overlap in other areas such as debt collection. Many of these issues are not location specific. Given the increased utilization of remote work technologies a lawyer in San Francisco or Los Angeles could help a client living in a remote part of the state. This concept is a departure from the traditional models of pro bono attorney service, but these times call for innovative solutions.

Second, legal aid organizations must have the support they need to increase their existing capacity by recruiting and training volunteer attorneys in partnership with the private bar. During all phases of the pandemic and in the aftermath, we must do our very best to ensure sufficient legal representation for as many low-income people as possible. To bring this about, it is important to create a system that allows experienced attorneys to work on the most complex cases while the less experienced focus on helping with intake and less complex cases. For newer attorneys, pro bono service with a legal aid agency can provide a breadth of exposure to various areas of law and a depth of experience that would likely not be available to them until much later in their career. For more seasoned attorneys volunteering can provide them with an opportunity to mentor a younger legal aid attorney or provide help in an entirely different area of law. For any attorney, regardless of years of experience, pro bono service at any level is a meaningful experience that will make a lasting impact in the life of an individual client. As the network of pro bono attorneys grows, their service can have lasting impacts on local communities and our state as a whole.

Lastly, we must be ready to pivot into a new direction. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, government agencies funded many civil legal aid organizations only if they met certain standards or requirements. Today, in our new normal, these standards no longer make sense. For legal aid organizations to meet the pre-COVID-19 standards during the pandemic is difficult, if not impossible. As an example, requiring legal aid attorneys to represent a specified number of in-court cases may have made sense before the crisis, but in the time of the pandemic, when most non-emergency civil matters have been postponed, adhering to those requirements will just make the job more difficult. State, local, and private funders should partner with legal aid agencies to develop new metrics that accommodate for the current challenges to service delivery and more effectively measure the true impact of the work.

In the coming months and into next year, we must work together to address the growing demand for free civil legal aid resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. We can begin by creating a flexible, responsive, and comprehensive statewide legal infrastructure dedicated to aiding communities that need it most. We can achieve this by working with our partners at sister legal aid programs, governmental agencies, the private bar, and other trusted community partners to establish shared priorities, recruit and train volunteer attorneys, and more effectively measure the collective impact of our work. Working together we can evaluate the data we collect to inform the longer term, big picture work of addressing existing structural inequities in our civil legal system. 

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Ben Armistead

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