An Onslaught of Need for Legal Aid

Legal aid organizations readying for spike in ‘poverty law’ matters from COVID-19’s economic distress

Legal aid organizations that provide representation to indigent clients tend to focus on issues that rise out of or are exacerbated by poverty: evictions, bankruptcy, domestic violence, divorce and custody. As rising unemployment leaves people unable to pay rent and mortgages, and stay-at-home-orders create a tinderbox for domestic violence situations, Colorado’s legal aid centers have braced themselves for an onslaught of demand.

“Low-income people touch the law frequently, but more during and after a disaster,” said Jon Asher, the executive director of Colorado Legal Services. He said CLS is seeing a wide range of legal needs as a result of the pandemic, from help challenging evictions to filing unemployment claims to end-of-life planning with wills and requests for medical power of attorney.

The CARES Act, a federal economic stimulus package, includes $50 million in grant funding for the Legal Services Corporation to distribute to U.S. legal aid organizations. A post on LSC’s website says it will distribute the money based on the number of people in poverty and the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in an organization’s service area. 

Colorado Legal Services currently receives grant funding from LSC. Carl Rauscher, LSC’s director of communications and media relations, said in an email the $50 million in additional funding through the CARES Act is available to legal aid organizations that already receive grant funding from LSC.

He said between $2 million and $2.4 million is earmarked for grantees to use for increasing their telework capabilities, and every legal aid organization that currently receives funding from LSC will receive a portion of the remaining $47 million. Rauscher wrote it is expected to be distributed by April 30.

A handful of counties, including Denver, Boulder and Weld counties, have chosen to pause eviction proceedings, but Gov. Jared Polis hasn’t declared a statewide rent freeze, meaning landlords can still file evictions and lawyers have a patchwork of jurisdictional policies to track. An April 8 Denverite story reported late rent payments in April more than doubled over January and February, according to a survey of large residential property management companies. According to data from the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment, more than 127,000 people had filed for unemployment by April 8. 

“The Denver County Court has put off eviction hearings at least until June, but there will be an enormous backlog of evictions of people who have been unable to pay their rent; there will be foreclosures filed,” Asher said. He said Colorado Legal Services is working with the Colorado Bar Association to get legal representation for clients in housing matters.

The economic crisis caused by the coronavirus has also spotlighted a trend more sinister than evictions: the expectation for domestic violence to rise. When NBC asked law enforcement agencies around the country about their data on domestic violence calls, 18 of 22 departments that responded said they had an increase in March. Stay-at-home orders mean families are spending more time together, and full shelters or freezes on new residents are limiting domestic abuse survivors’ ability to flee their situation. 

Shelly Dill, an attorney and pro bono coordinator for the Justice and Mercy Legal Aid Center in Denver, said court filings aren’t reflecting the increases in domestic violence. She believes that’s because limited court operations prompted by social distancing orders have made an already difficult-to-navigate court system seem even less accessible for people in need of remedies like protection orders or divorces. Courts have paused most proceedings except for emergency matters, and Dill said advocates that typically work in the courthouses to help domestic violence survivors are working at home. 

“What we’re seeing is filings and protection orders and the numbers of people seeking assistance are down,” Dill said. “But we know just from the cold calls to our office that the need is actually going up, and it’s because people don’t know how to access the court system.”

Dill said she has also seen clients decide to return to their abusers because they feel it’s better during the uncertainty of the public health crisis than moving forward with a divorce or going into unstable financial circumstances by leaving.

“I’ve had many other consults of potential clients who can’t figure out how to get out right now,” she said. Dill shared an anecdote about a client who put getting a divorce and permanent protection order against her abusive husband on hold and moved back in with him because he provided financial stability, saying the situation seemed safer for her and her infant than leaving in the midst of the public health crisis.

Dill also chairs the Denver Bar Association’s Access to Justice committee, so she has her fingers on the pulse of legal aid needs beyond what comes to JAMLAC’s doorstep. 

She echoed the perspective Asher brought from Colorado Legal Services about the expectation for a tidal wave of eviction cases once courts return to full operations, since filings haven’t stopped even though some courts have paused going forward with the proceedings.

Asher added other family law and domestic issues prompted by the public health crisis include custody arrangements complicated by stay-at-home orders for social distancing and inability to pay child support or alimony. 

“In some ways it’s early to tell on the one hand, because we’ve just been in stasis for [three to four] weeks, and we don’t know what the needs are going to be in the future,” Dill said. “But we all anticipate that there’s going to be a huge spike in the need, certainly in housing.”

—Julia Cardi

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