Legal Aid Community Concerned about COVID-19 Consequences
By Csaba Sukosd | April 20, 2020
The judicial system has slowed, and even halted in some respects, as courts contend with the impact of the coronavirus (COVID-19). One of the most affected groups of the pandemic are legal aid professionals, and the low-income Ohioans they serve.
Ohio Access to Justice Foundation executive director Angela Lloyd and the more than 500 legal aid professionals at various organizations statewide have been working remotely for weeks, carrying on the mission to assist at-risk citizens in need by phone, email, or video conference, and through the Ohio Legal Help website.
"All of Ohio's legal aid lawyers are heroes, and want to be somebody who's part of the answer, but they are also appropriately social distancing, and, at the same time, helping Ohioans," Lloyd said.
As the head of the foundation that funds Ohio's legal aid organizations that have a lot of face-to-face interaction with clients on both small and large scales, Lloyd noted isolated work fronts due to COVID-19 have highlighted some challenges in serving all the people who need their assistance.
"There have been tremendous efforts made to make sure people can weather this storm, and yet there are still a lot of people who may fall outside of our legal support safety net," Lloyd said.
Whether it's an elderly person with financial and technological constraints, or a documented immigrant afraid of requesting social assistance, Lloyd says these uncertain times illustrate how societal health and well-being partly hinges on people's legal health.
"It matters that people are financially stable. It matters that people have access to health care. It matters that people are safely, and stably, housed. It doesn't matter to just that person, it matters to our whole community," Lloyd said.
Currently, legal aid societies are managing with the limitations. But the bigger concern for them lies ahead. Large portions of their funding come from court filing fees and the Interest on Lawyers Trust Accounts (IOLTA).
With the volume of filings down due to reduced court operations, and certain banks lowering interest rates, that means less money in the future while a massive spike in cases is looming when business picks up in the justice system. Members of the National Association of IOLTA Programs project their revenues will drop by as much as 75% over the next year, which will force them to sharply reduce legal aid grants to hundreds of organizations.
"I have great hope that folks will step up, not just with their volunteer time, but with their dollars," Lloyd said.
Some supplemental resources are on the horizon. Congress allocated $50 million of its $2.2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and, Economic Security Act for legal aid nationwide. Lloyd added that philanthropic organizations, such as the Cleveland, Columbus, and Greater Cincinnati Foundations, have pooled emergency response funds to help Ohio's legal aid and others.
These types of emerging partnerships are a silver lining amid the pandemic. While people may be separated, physically, the adversity has spiritually unified legal aid professionals and their supporters. They are committed to enduring the present setbacks together, and are unified in providing the guiding legal light for Ohioans struggling to remained housed and financially secure during the pandemic. It's part of a solidarity that continually works toward a greater purpose.
"I think one of the positives of this will be people's appreciation of their interconnectedness, and their ability to positively impact and touch other people," Lloyd said.