Pro Bono News

Coronavirus Could Overwhelm Legal Help for America's Poor

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Coronavirus Could Overwhelm Legal Help for America's Poor

"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.”

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..."

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