The pandemic has affected people and businesses of all varieties—and pro bono services and legal aid organizations haven’t escaped its devastation. That has exacerbated the justice gap.
Eighty-six percent of civil legal problems reported by low-income Americans were handled with inadequate or no legal help, according to a 2017 Legal Services Corp. report. In addition, despite seeking help from LSC-funded legal aid organizations, only half of the estimated 1.7 million legal problems that existed would receive attention due to a lack of resources.
The pandemic has worsened the difficulties for people who struggle to find and afford representation for their legal matters.
New task force acts
When the pandemic set in, concerns over the availability of pro bono representation arose among leaders at local and national organizations. The ABA, for instance, surveyed 499 people serving various functions within its organization.
Respondents indicated that problems were likely to emerge due to the pandemic. They anticipated that unemployment matters would be highly problematic, followed closely by landlord-tenant issues.
Among those surveyed were members of the ABA Coronavirus Task Force, a team assembled to anticipate legal needs arising from the pandemic and to propose solutions. One of the stated goals of the task force is to mobilize pro bono efforts, and one of its essential functions is to help local organizations continue to serve their local clients.
The ABA also has a Center for Pro Bono, which doesn’t take on clients on its own but rather hosts a resource website that provides information to local pro bono organizations and even to individual clients. The list of resources on the website is extensive, and weekly calls allow local organizations to voice their concerns and problems. The ABA also has created a state-by-state Free Legal Answers portal through which attorneys provide short answers to individuals seeking legal advice.
The task force also conducts outreach activities in an effort to make local organizations, as well as potential clients, aware of their options. For instance, the task force publicizes a national online portal developed by the Disaster Legal Services Program of the ABA Young Lawyers Division to match pro bono lawyers with pandemic-related needs.
David Bienvenu, chair of the ABA Standing Committee on Pro Bono and Public Service, would like to see an increase in pro bono activity, with or without the pandemic. He’s particularly interested in how law schools can take action now to foster a generous spirit in future attorneys.
“A lot of people don’t realize how huge the justice gap is,” he said.
Correcting the disparate results in the legal system starts with making law students aware of the opportunities available to do pro bono, stated Bienvenu. He argued that a new generation of socially and economically conscious lawyers could close the justice gap and perhaps even correct the stereotypical view that lawyers are greedy and that the system is set up against low-income individuals.
In contrast to the ABA Coronavirus Task Force providing a national support system, local legal service organizations have been on the front lines serving individuals with legal needs.
The pandemic presented myriad difficulties. Shelter-in-place orders became effective in March, and organizations were forced to keep their offices closed.
That created challenges of communication with those in need who had no resources to reach out.
Mike Horner, executive director of the Middle Georgia Access to Justice Council, said his organization’s headquarters had been a social hub for individuals not only seeking legal help but also to chat and socialize. That was therapeutic.
During the pandemic, although attorneys could still work from home, fewer clients were signing up for help.
As restrictions were lifted, social distancing guidelines created serious bottlenecks. Horner said he was able to take on only half the normal clients he’d work with in a typical day.
Tomieka Daniel, managing attorney at the Georgia Legal Services Program, agreed that going virtual was difficult. Some low-income individuals aren’t tech savvy, she noted.
Some don’t have email or know how to download software. Forced to teach clients software like Zoom and prepare them for virtual court, her workload per client increased.
Remote work has, however, had a silver lining. The convenience of virtually attending hearings and meetings cut travel time for these professionals. There’s never been a time more convenient to become involved in pro bono.
The need grows
Despite the initial dip in the pro bono requests, there are now more requests than ever. For Daniel, domestic violence cases are up 35 percent.
Matilde Davis, volunteer engagement manager at the Atlanta Volunteer Lawyers Foundation, said there’s a greater need than ever for pro bono attorneys.
Landlord-tenant disputes, for instance, are on the rise. Davis said landlords used the pandemic as an excuse for neglecting their duties. If landlords refuse to remove toxic mold from an apartment, parents and students have no choice but to suffer through it during a shelter-in-place order. There are any number of negative second-order effects that may have happened down the line.
Anticipated future evictions illustrate the immensity of the second-order consequences. When the CDC’s regulation preventing evictions expires, there’s likely to be a spike in evictions. Tenants who’ve lost jobs will likely be unable to pay six to eight months of past-due rent, and there may be a surge in homelessness. Swift and decisive action will be necessary from underprepared and resource-hungry social agencies.
It’s difficult to hedge for today’s situation. Davis said there’s a huge demand for financial planning services at AVLF; perhaps tenants hope to avoid eviction or ready themselves for a new place. She said it’s difficult to say how things will shake out if there are mass evictions.
However large the impact of the pandemic has been, it’s clear that even a little bit of help can go a long way. Daniel recounted the story of an individual who was being evicted while the CDC had prohibited evictions. When the sheriff asked for the title and order number preventing eviction, the resident was able to contact an attorney and provide the information needed to cancel the eviction.
“A few hours can make a huge difference in the lives of low-income Georgians,” stated Daniel. For that resident, the help of a pro bono attorney meant that eviction was prevented when a lawyer providing those few details necessary stepped up.
“If all the lawyers in our service area could find some time or money to contribute to us, the justice gap would be eliminated in our area,” said Horner. He also proposed an incentive: the fewer the number of pro se litigants, the better; a faster-moving court system and a shorter docket would save lots of taxpayer dollars.
Whether it involves a power of attorney or housing advice, aiding low-income Americans by doing pro bono work doesn’t have to be a remarkable effort for any one volunteer. If everybody pitches in, the justice gap can be narrowed. And perhaps lawyers can win themselves a better reputation in their community.