March 26, 2021
Legal aid organizations continue to represent low-income residents during the COVID-19 pandemic by connecting their clients with the technology they need to participate in virtual court hearings, organization leaders said at a Thursday briefing.
One of the biggest challenges for legal aid organizations during the pandemic has been implementing the technology needed to allow their their clients to attend remote hearings because many of them don't have access to it, the leaders said at the event hosted by the Legal Services Corporation.
Colleen Cotter, executive director of the Legal Aid Society of Cleveland, said that her organization has used grant money to purchase tablets it then loaned out to clients so they could attend virtual hearings with their legal aid representatives.
"Being creative and resilient has been critical to our ability to continue to serve," Cotter said.
U.S. Reps. Brian Fitzpatrick, R-Pa., and Mary Gay Scanlon, D-Pa., the new co-chairs of the Congressional Access to Legal Aid Caucus, sponsored LSC's event, which featured speakers including Cotter,Rhodia Thomas, the executive director of MidPenn Legal Services, and Adrienne Worthy, the executive director of Legal Aid of West Virginia. LSC President Ronald Flagg moderated the discussion.
Cotter said the demand for legal aid representation in eviction proceedings soared in 2020 and that a piece of legislation passed in 2019 by the Cleveland City Council giving tenants a right to counsel was a game-changer.
"Having a right to counsel turns everything upside down. it changes the outcome of the evictions, and it also changes how we think about evictions," she said.
Flagg noted that state and federal eviction moratoriums don't benefit tenants unless they know they are eligible for that assistance and apply for it, adding that legal aid providers play a crucial role in ensuring that happens.
"The moratorium on evictions isn't a magic cloak that keeps people from being evicted," Flagg said.
Worthy said that in West Virginia, a state that has been battling the opioid epidemic since before the COVID-19 pandemic, her organization has seen a great demand for assistance related to drug abuse matters. She pointed out that even though the coronavirus has replaced the opioid epidemic in the headlines, opioid death rates have increased across the country.
"[Pandemic] stressors are magnified when someone is struggling with addiction, and in many instances can overwhelm a successful recovery," Worthy said.
By Sarah Martinson