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Coronavirus could overwhelm legal help for America’s poor

Already short on resources, civil legal aid groups now face unprecedented crunch

Attorneys at the Southeast Louisiana Legal Services Corp. helped the state’s poorest residents in the aftermath of two major hurricanes, the Gulf oil spill and the Great Recession — but the COVID-19 outbreak threatens to strain work there and at similar agencies across the country like never before.

Laura Tuggle worked on housing issues amid Hurricane Katrina’s widespread devastation of property in New Orleans as a staff attorney 15 years ago. Now, she is the group’s executive director as Louisiana emerges as a hot spot for coronavirus cases and the governor has shuttered nonessential businesses.

“We have gone through a lot of big disasters, and this will be the biggest yet,” Tuggle said. “The biggest civil legal aid crisis, the biggest economic crisis, the biggest public health crisis, sort of all rolled into one.”

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Often overlooked and already short on resources, civil legal aid groups in the COVID-19 era are among the first responders for Americans who need help navigating the legal system to fight unfair evictions and foreclosures, get domestic abuse protective orders, obtain unemployment or unpaid wages, access health care or respond to scammers.

These groups now face an unprecedented crunch from all sides as the nation’s poor take the brunt of the faltering economy and skyrocketing unemployment numbers. The closure of businesses for social distancing will not only increase the number of people with those legal problems but also increase the number of people who qualify as low-income.

Civil legal aid attorneys already could meet only a fraction of the needs for those in poverty. COVID-19 threatens to overwhelm them and leave hundreds of thousands more, if not millions more nationwide, without legal help when it comes to basic needs such as shelter, safety or economic security.

Residents who lost the ability to pay rents or mortgages because of the virus in New York City, where there is currently a moratorium on evictions and foreclosures, will face lawsuits almost immediately when it lifts, said Raun Rasmussen, executive director of Legal Services NYC. That could double the number of housing cases in New York City, he said, at a time when legal aid groups already could meet only about a third of the demand for all services statewide.

“I think there will be, in New York City and elsewhere around the state, hundreds of thousands of people that need help and won’t be able to get it,” Rasmussen said. “In addition to those who previously were unable to get help.”

And there will be novel issues: In Louisiana, parents who have joint custody of a child already called for help because a parent pointed to the shelter-in-place order as a reason not to follow a joint custody agreement, Tuggle said.

Congress added an extra $50 million in March to the $440 million appropriation in fiscal 2020 for Legal Services Corporation, a program for civil legal aid for the poor that distributes grant funds to states, under a massive $2.3 trillion financial rescue package designed to curb the economic damage from the pandemic. But it was less than the $100 million LSC requested in response to COVID-19, and still under the group’s pre-virus request of $653 million for fiscal 2021 to address the millions nationwide who can’t afford legal representation. The Trump administration in several budget requests sought to eliminate LSC funding altogether, but Congress has not gone along with those proposals.

Each agency gets its funding from a variety of sources. The congressional funds through Legal Services Corporation are about 45 percent of the budget for the Southeast Louisiana Legal Services Corporation and about 20 percent of the budget for the Legal Aid Society of Cleveland, for example.

The cost of an attorney for civil matters is often out of reach even for those who are comfortably in the middle class, according to the National Center for Access to Justice at Fordham Law School. In New York, there are fewer than three civil legal aid lawyers for every 10,000 people who live under 200 percent of the federal poverty guidelines, the center’s Justice Index data shows. That level is $25,520 a year for one person and $52,400 for a family of four in 2020.

But that’s more attorneys than every other state and far above the national average. COVID-19 hot spots such as California, Texas, Florida, Colorado, Louisiana and Ohio have fewer than one legal aid lawyer for every 20,000 people in poverty.

Some of the $50 million in emergency money from Congress will quickly go to obtain equipment to work remotely via video or telephone since the groups have had to shutter their offices and become online firms virtually overnight.

For now, the state groups are finding ways to remotely help clients, many of whom don’t have access to computers or the internet, with immediate needs such as obtaining unemployment insurance or health care, or unlocking some special protections that financial companies have put in place in the wake of COVID-19.

That operational change “has a huge impact on how we get our work done and how we interact with our clients,” said Colleen Cotter, the executive director of the Legal Aid Society of Cleveland, where the governor has ordered the state to shelter in place.

The group usually depends on community outreach to find clients who might not know they could get representation. And even though the Great Recession in 2008 challenged the group financially, they still had the office and the ability to meet clients face to face in the office or in the community.

“Not being able to sit down with a client who is already stressed because they’re losing something really important, they’re losing shelter, or safety, or economic security, so they’re already in crisis,” Cotter said. “And then layer on top of that the crisis that we’re all going through, the stress of this pandemic. There’s nothing like this.”

In Louisiana, Tuggle said there were a lot of lives lost in Hurricane Katrina but people didn’t know it was coming. This time, people are sitting in their living rooms thinking about creating wills — a document that typically requires a signature, notary and two witnesses.

So the legal aid attorneys are on the phone trying to walk people through an older, outdated method of writing a will.

“We’re trying to give people advice about: This is a legally enforceable will, you handwrite it, you sign it, you sign it on each page,” Tuggle said. “We’re all going back to law school.”

The civil legal aid groups face some funding uncertainty of their own. In New York City, Rasmussen said his and other organizations are taking out lines of credit at banks so they can continue to pay staff if there is a cash flow issue, such as a slowing of the processing of invoices at state and local governments.

The Legal Services NYC staff and attorneys “are all over the city to try to address the need at a time when they’re facing possible illness, where they’re facing challenges in their own families,” Rasmussen said.

And at some groups, such as in Louisiana, a share of funding depends on interest from lawyers’ trust accounts. That could severely shrink as a side effect of the Federal Reserve’s emergency move to lower the interest rate.

For now, the storm has yet to hit hardest.

“I can tell you, having gone through Katrina, there will be a little bit of a lull period, while people are stabilizing themselves from the impact of this calamitous event,” Tuggle said. “And then there will be a huge swell of people needing assistance.”

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