As our nation grapples with the extraordinary losses and changes caused by COVID-19, it has become abundantly clear how critical legal services are in helping low-income communities access justice and basic needs. With the majority of our staff working from home, the Legal Aid Society of Columbus has maintained all of our traditional practice areas while shifting resources and volunteers to respond to COVID-19-related needs.
In mid-March, all of LASC’s in-person pro bono legal clinics went “virtual.” Under the new model, volunteer attorneys confer with clients over the phone during pre-scheduled clinic times. Although the clinics have a broad focus, most questions have involved family law, consumer debt, housing, probate issues and employment.
In response to the state’s skyrocketing unemployment compensation applications, LASC also created a virtual unemployment clinic that connects lawyers and non-lawyers with individuals struggling to navigate the traditional unemployment and pandemic unemployment assistance application processes.
With the reopening of eviction court this month at the Greater Columbus Convention Center, LASC has expanded our eviction defense program, the Tenant Advocacy Project. This court-based clinic engages legal aid staff and volunteer lawyers in representing tenants in evictions. Thanks to a grant from Columbus City Council, we are able to temporarily add five additional attorneys to the program. Working with our sister program, Southeastern Ohio Legal Services, we also plan to replicate TAP in other counties and explore possible remote representation options for rural tenants.
Still a work in progress, LASC’s virtual pro bono projects have had an impact. The program – which includes work done by SEOLS and serves a 36-county region – has already helped more than 250 clients with the assistance of more than 80 volunteers. A tenant can breathe easier after learning that her landlord’s eviction attempts were unlawful, a parent now understands how to enforce a visitation order and a laid-off worker can finally submit an unemployment application.
Throughout the crisis, staff attorneys have worked tirelessly to remotely represent clients facing life-altering legal problems. Clients like Cindy Kimbler, an essential worker earning less than $11 an hour. Kimbler reached out to legal aid after learning that 25% of her wages would be garnished to pay back a payday loan that she took out several years ago to repair her car. Kimbler, who sorts and prices donations at a local thrift store, barely manages her monthly bills. LASC helped her file a bankruptcy that stopped the wage garnishment and allowed her to continue to make her rent payments.
“It really is going to help me get my life back on track,” she said. “It’s such a relief – a weight off my shoulders. I want people out there to know there is hope.”
LASC will continue to explore ways in which volunteers and staff can serve our mission to combat unfairness and injustice and to help people rise out of poverty, because low-income families need legal help more than ever. It’s essential.
Dianna Parker is director of pro bono and community engagement for Ohio State Legal Services Association, which includes the Legal Aid Society of Columbus and Southeastern Ohio Legal Services.