Legal aid worried about aftermath of coronavirus

Legal aid providers in Indiana are still serving clients as the coronavirus storm gathers strength, but they are worried about the surge they anticipate will come after the outbreak has passed.

Indianapolis Legal Aid Society and Indiana Legal Services remain open, with their intake systems continuing to take calls and connecting individuals and families with attorneys. Attorneys at both agencies have the option of working remotely and meeting with clients over the phone rather than in person.

Adam Mueller, director of advocacy at ILS, said the work for legal aid attorneys may slow as state and federal courts continue taking steps to delay or reschedule all nonessential hearings and allow attorneys to appear remotely. However, as the virus subsides and life begins to return to normal, the economic fallout could create a wave of new clients.

Mueller noted the people who depend on legal aid are typically hit hardest whenever the economy cycles downward. ILS, he said, is “very, very concerned” the need for legal help could increase sharply.

John Floreancig, general counsel and CEO at ILAS, fears a coronavirus-induced recession could have the same impact as the Great Recession. During 2008 and 2009, he remembers his waiting room filled with individuals who at one time had enough income to donate to legal aid. But then the economic downturn hit them so badly that they were turning to ILAS for free legal assistance.

With employers shutting down amid the health crisis, Floreancig said the fuel to ignite a financial fire is building with people not getting their paychecks while bills are still arriving.

“This could be a mess down the road if people aren’t paying bills,” Floreancig said, noting ILAS attorneys could be called to handle a rash of collections cases. “I think down the road it’s going to be a real problem.”

Even more so, Floreancig is worried the slowdown in the judicial system could have an immediate impact on children. More youngsters, he said, might enter the foster care system if guardianships are not able to be processed in a timely fashion.

To help blunt the financial blow, United Way of Central Indiana announced the establishment of the Central Indiana COVID-19 Community Economic Relief Fund. The initiative currently has $16.5 million that will be distributed to human services organizations in Boone, Hamilton, Hancock, Hendricks, Marion and Morgan counties.

United Way hopes to have identified by Friday which nonprofits will be receiving the first rounds of funding, according to Jessica Di Santo, spokeswoman for the agency. Whether legal aid will be included in any of the funding has not been determined.

Mueller reiterated that at this point in the crisis, legal help may not be the top need. Hoosiers’ main priorities right now are likely having the resources to eat and pay rent, he said.

Also expecting the demand for legal assistance will grow as a result of the coronavirus crisis, the American Bar Association has assembled a team of lawyers and judges from across the country to help develop a response. The Task Force on Legal Needs Arising Out of the 2020 Pandemic is chaired by James Sandman, former president of the Legal Services Corp., and includes experts in disaster response; health law; basic human needs such as food, shelter, and medical and employment benefits; insurance; criminal justice; domestic violence; and civil rights.

“As the pandemic spread, thousands of Americans will need help – not just with medical issues but also with legal issues, including lost jobs, evictions, insurance claims, family emergencies and obtaining government benefits they need to survive,” ABA president Judy Perry Martinez said in a statement. “… With this task force, we will start by looking for where the need is greatest and where we can make the biggest difference for people in dire situations.”

From his work as the director of the ABA Disaster Legal Services Program from 2011 to 2015, Indianapolis attorney David Nguyen has experience coordinating legal assistance in times of crisis. The DLS, which is part of the Young Lawyers Division, swung into action anytime after the federal government issued a disaster declaration following a tornado, earthquake, flood or other kind of natural disaster.

Nguyen advised that attorneys can prepare for the surge by reading and reviewing the areas of the law that will probably be utilized most as a result of the coronavirus. Landlord-tenant and unemployment insurance will likely be the most prominent issues, he said.

To help now, Nguyen said, the legal profession can start informing and educating the public. Pamphlets and brochures can be printed that will help individuals and families understand their rights so they can advocate for themselves. In addition, he said, the legal community in Indiana might be able to build on its ask-a-lawyer programs and establish a hotline or use a virtual platform from which vulnerable populations can get free legal advice.

Lawyers, he said, also need to pay attention to caring for themselves. Helping struggling individuals in a time of crisis can take an emotion toll, which will require attorneys to find avenues for personal relief.

“Celebrate the small successes,” Nguyen said. “This is definitely a marathon, not a sprint. Celebrate the small victories even if the war isn’t won.”

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