The coronavirus pandemic has driven a rise in the number of people eligible for legal aid, but a recent fundraiser left a major organization short of its economic goal.
Colorado’s unemployment rate sat at 10.5% in June, and the state had 237,236 unemployment claims at the end of the month. Job loss has been a bellwether for measuring economic distress during the pandemic, and the intersection of poverty and legal need is where Colorado Legal Services finds its clients. The sudden economic downturn since the spring has brought an onslaught of need for the organization’s representation.
The Legal Aid Foundation announced Aug. 3 it raised $1.75 million from attorneys and law firms during its most recent Campaign for Justice, which ended with the fiscal year at the end of June. The Legal Aid Foundation raises money for Colorado Legal Services, which is the only statewide organization that provides civil legal aid to low-income people.
Legal Aid Foundation executive director Diana Poole said money raised from donations is valuable because it doesn’t carry restrictions on its use that funding from federal and state sources comes with. State funding for Colorado Legal Services comes from the Eviction Legal Defense Fund and the Family Violence Justice Fund for legal services related to domestic violence and is limited to those two types of legal aid.
Jon Asher, executive director of Colorado Legal Services, said funding from the national Legal Services Corporation can be used for a broader range of services than domestic violence and eviction defense, but for the most part it can’t be used to serve people who are undocumented or incarcerated, and allows use for limited legislative advocacy.
Federal funding from the Victims of Crime Act has to cover providing direct services to victims, and the salaries of people supervising others who provide the direct services. A victim advocate previously told Law Week it’s not really possible for a person on staff to spend all their time doing only direct work with victims.
Poole said the number of people eligible for Colorado Legal Services’ representation has increased, with the pandemic leaving hundreds of thousands of Coloradans out of work and in poverty. According to a news release, Colorado Legal Services serves people and families at or below 125% of the federal poverty line.
Asher said Colorado Legal Services anticipates increased need for legal aid for collection actions, bankruptcies, foreclosures and getting public benefits, all poverty-related issues exacerbated by the pandemic.
“It’s right now more than eviction defense and domestic violence, as important and voluminous as those two areas of legal need are,” he said. “We still don’t meet [all] the need in any of those areas, but it does give us greater flexibility in meeting critical legal needs in many more areas.”
Poole added money raised by the Legal Aid Foundation could also be used to fill gaps left by funding cuts from the state legislature. For the current fiscal year that started July 1, Colorado’s legislature cut $500,000 from the Family Violence Justice Fund grant program.
“In addition to addressing essential areas of need that aren’t allowed with the state money, it could also be used to augment state money if the need in those particular areas need more money,” she said. The legislature also cut $150,000 from the Eviction Legal Defense Fund’s appropriation, but the fund received an additional $350,000 from the CARES Act.
Poole said the Legal Aid Foundation fundraiser had an initial goal of raising $1.9 million for Colorado Legal Services. She said although the $150,000 shortage is felt, especially at a time when needs for legal aid have jumped, the organization’s fundraiser still did well. A news release stated the campaign received nearly half its donations during the pandemic.
“Given everything that’s going on, we were very grateful to have done as well as we did,” Poole said.