A Gathering Storm Threatens the Future of Legal Aid
As funding dries up, a flood of legal needs is beginning to build, and it will soon spill over into Connecticut courts.
By Liam Brennan, CVLC Executive Director
As COVID-19 patients begin to fill the beds of hospitals, Connecticut’s courts—like most professions in the state—have gone silent. But a legal storm is brewing in the distance that has the potential to devastate the legal aid community and the low-income clients they serve. The impending disaster threatens funding for legal aid just as cases are poised to spike. As the private bar mobilizes to lend a hand during this medical emergency, there are steps private attorneys can take now to avoid legal calamity for Connecticut’s most vulnerable citizens.
The first threat to Connecticut’s legal aid programs comes in the form of funding. The vast majority of legal aid funding in the state flows through the Connecticut Bar Foundation. The CBF provides funding through three different mechanisms—funds from interest on lawyer’s trust (IOLTA) accounts, funds generated from court fees and funds granted through the judicial branch. While the judicial branch grants remain unchanged, the IOLTA and court-fees funding are expected to drop significantly. With courts closed, filing fees have dried up and the change will hit the legal aid community in May and June. Meanwhile, bank interest rates have plunged to a fraction of what they were last year and IOLTA funding is set to drop.
Other funders are re-assessing their priorities and considering orienting their grants away from legal aid, toward medical assistance. Meanwhile, social distancing has wreaked havoc on event-fundraising. With no understanding of when the limits on public gathering will lift, spring and summer fundraisers must be postponed at best. The Connecticut Veterans Legal Center (CVLC), for example, holds an annual bike ride fundraiser each June. However, since the onset of COVID-19, our host has had to cancel the event and cannot commit to a new date. While we are adapting to an all-virtual ride, designed to build solidarity and build awareness about the plight of homeless and mentally ill veterans, our last sponsorship commitment came in on March 3rd and we remain at less than half the committed sponsors we had last year. The situation is similar for other organizations.
Even as funding dries up, a flood of legal needs is beginning to build; it will soon spill over into Connecticut courts. To aid in social distancing, the judicial branch has postponed evictions until May. While it may extend the moratorium again, when it lifts, there will be a rush of individuals in need of legal assistance. Not only will the courts face months of suspended housing cases that were the normal products of an ordinary, growing economy; they will also have to grapple with the fallout from the economic downturn. We have already seen unprecedented unemployment. As the economy moves into the expected post-COVID recession, more residents will lose their jobs and the numbers facing eviction will grow. Many legal aid clients do not have access to the internet and often have phone service that runs out of minutes. Under COVID restrictions, they will likely struggle to reach service providers. When the restrictions lift, the need for aid will be high.
Right now, private attorneys are volunteering to be of assistance and are eager to help fellow citizens in need. Firms like McCarter and English and Halloran and Sage have reached out to CVLC to lend assistance. While housing cases are on hold, VA benefits and other administrative cases are still proceeding. For attorneys trained to practice VA benefits law, this the perfect opportunity to help low-income veterans in need. At a time when the economy is crashing and access to a doctor is even more of a life and death issue than usual, these cases provide clients with the potential to access both income and healthcare.
But the bigger storm still lies ahead and legal aid programs will need additional hands to handle the influx of cases. When the state courts reopen, there will be a rush of need for legal assistance, particularly in housing session. Private firms can stand in solidarity with the state’s most vulnerable residents by suggesting attorneys volunteer their time to handle the barrage of cases and by allowing associates to count the hours they spend on pro bono matters toward their billable goals. Halloran Sage, which was recognized by the Hartford County Bar Association for outstanding work representing indigent clients in housing cases, already does this. Others should follow suit.
Finally, the private bar can show up for the state’s most vulnerable residents by financially supporting the legal aid community. We need both your time and funding. Our legal aid organizations have to be able to screen and intake clients, prepare cases to transfer to a pro bono, and track and report on each pro bono case. One way to support the legal aid community is to support our reconfigured, virtual events. CVLC invites all law firms to support veterans recovering from homelessness and mental illness by signing up for the virtual Ride for Our Vets as sponsors and by creating virtual teams who raise funds. During this time of isolation, it can be a great team-building activity to form a team and train simultaneously—but independently—and sharing your support virtually with each other. While we cannot all physically be together, we can achieve that social connection that many of us crave and join forces for good.
The virus spreading across the country is impacting us all in new and unforeseen ways. Its biggest effects on the legal system still lie ahead. The challenge will be great. But, with a coordinated effort between legal service providers and the private bar, we can rise to meet it.