September 5, 2020
Just as COVID-19 disproportionately impacts the health of the poor and minorities, so too it is giving rise to an unprecedented demand for legal services by those who cannot afford to pay for an attorney. These individuals require legal assistance for an ever-growing range of matters and disputes, at a moment in time when they (along with the rest of society) grieve over the death and despair caused by the crisis.
In response to this enormous challenge, the courts, organized bar and legal services organizations have acted swiftly and comprehensively. For example, the New York State Bar Association (“NYSBA”) is working in partnership with the state’s Unified Court System, the Governor’s office, and legal service providers to ensure increased demand for legal services, especially among the poor and minorities, can be met as New York recovers. To this end, NYSBA has developed a statewide pro network of volunteer attorneys to meet the demand in those areas where the greatest surge in new cases is anticipated.
Currently, demand for legal help on unemployment-related issues has been an acute area of need. Many are daunted by the process and have turned to civil legal aid and pro bono attorneys for guidance. Some organizations have seen about three hundred percent or higher increase in volume covering a wide range of unemployment benefits issues. Common issues are eligibility determination and appealing denials.
The number of jobless workers has swelled during the pandemic to levels not seen since the Great Depression. Many people are already confused about how to access the myriad of state and federal public benefits, including stimulus monies, and interpret moratoriums that are essential to their shelter, health and well-being.
To address this need, NYSBA has established a program that matches volunteer pro bono attorneys with persons whose unemployment claims have been denied, through an innovative website. A similar program is being stood up to provide pro bono assistance for the families of those who lost loved ones, in small Surrogate Courts and estate matters. Nearly 1,000 attorneys have volunteered their time and expertise to these initiatives.
Of course, civil legal aid is the backbone and most critical component of New York’s efforts to provide justice for all. New York’s legal service providers’ budgets are based on as much as 70% of state funds to provide free services to low-income New Yorkers. Before the pandemic, these legal aid organizations were already unable to serve 61% of low-income New Yorkers who needed their assistance. As the fallout from the COVID-19 unfolds, we anticipate that the gap between those that need legal help, and those that can afford it, will dramatically increase.
Increased efficiency alone will be not be enough. With a projected $61 billion revenue shortage through 2024, New York needs the federal government to do its part in helping states recover by providing stimulus funding.
Even before the pandemic, legal services programs for low-income New Yorkers were stretched to the brink, where less than half the needs could be met. Post pandemic, any proposed cuts to these programs will disproportionately affect people in low-income communities holding high risk positions in health care, grocery stores, cleaning and delivery. Many of these people have gotten sick, lost their jobs or don’t make enough to support their families. When legal proceedings surge against frontline workers, New York state must ensure that their basic civil legal needs can be met.
Henry M. Greenberg, past president of the New York State Bar Association
Lillian Moy, executive director of the Legal Aid Society of Northeastern New York