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April 2021


Legal aid in a pandemic: Notes from the front lines

BY LILO SCHLUENDER

 

0421-Sisyphean-RockWorking in civil legal aid is challenging in good times; working as a civil legal aid attorney in a global pandemic has felt like a Sisyphean undertaking. For the past 12 months, our practice has evolved from poverty lawyers to humanitarian crisis advocates. The stories of pandemic survival have become the fabric of our practice, at times consuming it. Demand for our services has skyrocketed. In Minnesota, individual legal aid offices have seen demand increase by 30-50 percent depending on the region. 

Like our private attorney colleagues, we have had to navigate the shifting sands of court mandates and government restrictions. We have learned to work from home offices, closed our public waiting rooms, and learned to interact with our clients virtually. But we don’t work in isolation, and many facets of our practice have been deeply affected by a greater ecosystem of shuttered resources. Almost overnight our clients were without the holistic resources they, and we, had come to rely on—a network that includes domestic abuse advocates, self-help centers, public libraries, court records, legal clinics, county services, free meals, and safe shelters. Our offices continue to be one of the few access points for the legally vulnerable to seek assistance. 

It is no secret that covid-19 has exacerbated the hardships faced by the roughly 700,000 Minnesotans living below the federal poverty guidelines. Their distress is palpable. Some of the requests for assistance we’ve received attest to the scale of human suffering this pandemic has caused:

  • A grandparent needs to know her legal rights to her grandchildren while her daughter lies in a coma after being stabbed by her estranged husband. 
  • An aunt seeks emergency custody of her five-year-old niece because both parents have relapsed into addiction triggered by the closing of in-person treatment facilities. 
  • Mother is served with an eviction notice while hospitalized for birth complications; her family will be displaced and there is nowhere to go.
  • A single parent, assessed with a $15,000 unemployment overpayment due to a clerical error, cannot afford diapers.

These calls come from parents whispering in a closet so their children will not overhear. They come from county mental health workers and child protection workers struggling to secure safety for a family. They come from nursing homes, detention centers, prisons, and the courts themselves. Counter to what court filings seem to indicate, we in legal aid offices have seen the severity and frequency of domestic abuse cases increase. We have seen an increase in family law cases affected by parental addiction and mental health concerns. We have also seen an increase in consumer-debt concerns and public assistance cases involving agency error. 

Recently, a colleague who practices in greater Minnesota disclosed to me that he has 13 open cases in which the children, subject to child protection matters, have had their access to their parents severely restricted due to the closure of county-supervised services. Families, already displaced, are now further traumatized by pandemic-induced estrangement, another cruel reality of this crisis. 

In the early months of this crisis, many of us were continuing to appear in-person to court. We took precautions, wearing masks and bathing in hand sanitizer, but the proceedings always felt risky. Sometimes the hallways were crowded, the sheriffs unmasked, or the courtroom proceedings so congested that close contact with interpreters and clients was inevitable. The very nature of our work and the high level of trauma that surrounds it required us to be physically present and engaged with our clients. 

Looking back, knowing what we know now, I question why the decision was left to individual courts to protect the indigent and the lawyers who serve them. In some counties, a two-tiered judicial process began to develop: If you were represented by an attorney and had access to technology, you could avoid in-person court proceedings altogether. But often in those early months, if you were not represented, or you were represented by a legal aid attorney and the opposing party was pro se, you were denied a virtual appearance. Yes, the in-person civil hearings were restricted to certain critical proceedings, but they happened to be the ones legal aid attorneys most often appear in. These practices only ceased last November when the Minnesota Supreme Court issued a broader order requiring remote hearings.

The current outlook

The access gaps, however, continue. The already burdensome process of pursuing a civil case in court has become even more difficult in a pandemic. For many of our clients, the pure act of printing a packet of pleadings, filling out the forms, making copies, and correctly filing it with a court is too difficult to accomplish alone. For clients with language or cognitive barriers, the lack of in-person assistance or translation magnifies the burden. 

Many eligible legal aid clients do not have printers, copiers, or scanners in their home. Without law libraries and public offices, they (and in some areas, the courts) rely on legal aid offices to distribute pro se forms and provide guidance on filing. Furthermore, there seems to be a prevailing assumption that if a resource is posted online, it is accessible. For clients without internet access, or the technological literacy to make use of these resources, an online filing guide resembles hieroglyphics. These resources still require stable internet, a computer or tablet, a printer, a quiet space to complete the forms, a copier, and transportation to the courthouse. 

Even in our own legal services offices, the reliance on technology has come with unintended consequences and has required constant evaluation. For example, web-based phone services do not accept collect calls. This means a prisoner or detainee trying to call an attorney in a remote legal aid office must have independent funds deposited in their account to support their call. If they do not have the funds—and many do not—they simply cannot speak to their attorney. 

The financial stress of this pandemic manifests itself in many ways and will continue to do so for years to come. Like the countless families who have lost their incomes—with the bills piling up and rent coming due—we are anxiously awaiting the lifting of the eviction moratoriums, bracing ourselves for what will be a very dark time for families in poverty. The financial scars of this pandemic and the disruption to Minnesotan families are destined to remain long after we reach a new normal. 

Adapting to the times

So, how have the civil legal aid offices of Minnesota met the need in this time of crisis? To address the digital divide, the Minnesota Legal Services Coalition, with the assistance of CARES Act funds, recently installed a statewide network of 200 legal computer kiosks stationed in a variety of community locations to help Minnesotans who face barriers of technology and transportation to access legal services and appear for remote hearings. (For more information visit the Legal Kiosk Project at legalkiosk.org.) 

Additionally, we use the remote resources we do have to maximize our presence in “legal desert” areas in greater Minnesota. At Legal Aid Service of Northeastern Minnesota, for example, we have instituted a virtual legal clinic model that allows us to serve our entire 11-county region with volunteers and staff attorneys who participate from all corners of the state. Remote access has allowed our private attorney involvement office to draw upon a deeper pool of volunteers willing to assist indigent clients living in rural Minnesota. As a result, a volunteer attorney in Wayzata can now represent a family law client in International Falls. 

As legal aid attorneys, we are keenly aware of our responsibility in this humanitarian crisis and our obligation to help as many clients as we possibly can. I am so proud of my civil legal aid colleagues, our partners, and the collective impact we have had in working to ensure that phone calls are answered, cases are triaged, justice is pursued, and basic human needs are fought for during this extraordinary time. We have served thousands of clients, closed over 900 covid-related cases, and succeeded in securing safety and stability for thousands of families.  

But we cannot do it alone. There is, and will be, far more need in Minnesota than our legal aid staff can ever meet, and a housing crisis looms in the immediate future. I encourage all Minnesota attorneys to consider volunteering with your local legal aid office or volunteer program. You do not need specialized legal knowledge, just a desire to help your fellow Minnesotans and a belief in equal justice under the law. Most programs offer thorough training, mentoring, and assistance. For a comprehensive guide to pro bono offices and opportunities, go to ProJustice Minnesota (projusticemn.org). 


How to avoid poverty-shaming in a pandemic

  • Offer technology options, but do not assume access or technology literacy. Ask a client or litigant their preference: Would they rather have a phone conference or a Zoom hearing?
  • Stop sharing stories of people appearing in court from cars or from their beds. Private space in a pandemic is a luxury many cannot afford.
  • Stop saying “get a lawyer” to people who cannot afford one. Being poor is not a voluntary condition. 
  • Stay up to date on community resources for food and housing assistance and share with all. The more you share, the less you stigmatize poverty. 
  • Be aware of how burdensome it is to print, sign, scan, and file documents for someone without a printer or access to a copier. 
  • Send love to your law librarian. Law libraries and self-help centers are critical to ensuring access to justice in our state. They have been doing the heavy lifting of supporting self-represented litigants, and they will continue to do so.
  • Help your neighbors! Recognize that in times of human crisis, those experiencing poverty suffer the most and for the longest. Contact your local legal aid office and lend a hand. 

 


LILO SCHLUENDER is the director of private attorney involvement (pro bono) at Legal Aid Service of Northeastern Minnesota. Prior to joining LASNEM, Lilo supervised and practiced in the areas of family and poverty law at Central Minnesota Legal Services in Minneapolis.

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