A civil justice crisis is coming (Commonwealth Magazine)

This piece was published by Commonwealth Magazine on September 10, 2020

Susan Finegan and Lynne Parker

THE COVID-19 CRISIS has come at Massachusetts in waves: a public health emergency, an economic collapse, a widening of racial disparities, and now, an overwhelming need for legal help. In response, the Commonwealth must fully support the essential work of civil legal aid, which helps low-income people retain housing, stay safe from domestic abuse, appeal rejected claims for unemployment and other public benefits, and resolve a host of other civil legal problems that are growing in the virus’s wake. As a result of the pandemic, the rising demand for civil legal aid in Massachusetts is straining existing resources and requires greater funding on the state level.

We are in this pandemic together, but we’re not all in it equally. Legal aid lawyers serve as essential workers on the front line, sounding the alarm that a justice crisis is imminent, disproportionately threatening the health, safety, and financial stability of low-income people—particularly low-income people of color. Systemic racism, underscored by recent protests following the deaths of Rayshard Brooks, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and many other black people, permeates every aspect of society. And low-income people of all racial identities often lack the resources to maintain their financial stability through a major illness or job loss.

Civil legal issues can be serious and life-altering. But unlike in criminal cases, where lawyers are provided for people who cannot afford them, there is no constitutional right to a lawyer in every civil case. Even before the crisis, lean funding limited capacity and forced legal aid organizations to turn away the majority of low-income people who sought help. For those who can get help, civil legal aid organizations provide advice and representation at no cost to low-income residents. When the pandemic hit Massachusetts, legal aid organizations across the state mobilized to help people stave off unlawful eviction, file for unemployment, obtain restraining orders, and navigate matters in immigration court. The need is enormous and still growing, overtaxing legal aid organizations that were already stretched thin. The efforts of volunteer lawyers, while essential, cannot come close to meeting the need.

The faltering economy and skyrocketing unemployment mean more people in Massachusetts will be eligible for legal aid than before the coronavirus struck. Many will be families who had never turned to public benefits, but who now need help receiving benefits such as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps, or unemployment insurance. A tidal wave of eviction and foreclosure cases is building. While Massachusetts has placed a temporary moratorium on evictions, mounting debt puts tenants at grave risk of homelessness when it expires.

The growing number of people who urgently need assistance includes people trapped with an abusive partner; students with disabilities, who still have a right to an equal education; older adults vulnerable to neglect; consumers confronted with scams or unexpected debt; prisoners, whose sentence should not include a life-threatening illness; and undocumented immigrants facing the prospect of deportation amid a global emergency.

The Massachusetts Legislature has consistently demonstrated broad support for legal aid. That said, the social and economic consequences of COVID-19 will continue to generate a surge of need that will overwhelm our legal aid system unless adequate funding is provided. Substantial and sustained support for civil legal aid must be part of the Commonwealth’s answer to the pandemic.

Just as doctors and nurses warned us about the public health emergency they knew was coming, civil legal aid lawyers now warn us of a civil justice crisis that is crashing upon Massachusetts. If we ignore these warnings, the consequences will be dire for families across the state. We must listen to these frontline responders and provide the resources they need to deliver justice for all.

Susan Finegan is a partner at Mintz Levin Cohn Ferris Glovsky and Popeo and co-chair of the Massachusetts Access to Justice Commission. Lynne Parker is executive director of the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation.