The Capitol at dusk. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

By Mark D. Braley

The deeper we get into the COVID-19 pandemic, the more challenges we face regarding the health and economic hardships facing Virginia’s communities.

It is clear that the outbreak in Virginia leaves countless people with new and unanticipated civil legal challenges: securing unemployment benefits, remaining safely in their homes without being evicted or foreclosed on, guarding against domestic abuse, protecting their already reduced or meager incomes from debt collectors, especially those already obtaining liens on low-income Virginians’ bank accounts in anticipation of their receipt of federal relief checks, and much more.

Virginia state government needs to use every available resource and lifeline to provide relief during this crisis. Civil legal aid, an essential part of our state’s front-line response, must play an even larger role in the present emergency and during our recovery.

Before the pandemic set in, the 2020 Virginia General Assembly recognized, as did Gov. Ralph Northam in his 2019 budget, that legal aid is a crucial component of Virginia’s response to the “eviction” crisis where five of the top 10 highest eviction rates in the country are in Virginia cities.

Without a lawyer, people facing eviction lose their homes approximately 66 percent of time. With a lawyer, they keep their right to stay in their homes 62 percent of the time. With a legal aid lawyer, people facing eviction stayed in their homes 72 percent of the time.

Legal aid lawyers are also the best equipped to protect Virginians from unfair and illegal liens on their bank accounts. Every debt collector and bank know that social security and disability funds are exempt from debt collection processes, yet they routinely freeze and seize the accounts of low-income people who rely on meager subsistence checks. Legal aid lawyers routinely stop these illegal seizures of funds as a natural part of poverty law practice. During the pandemic, these kinds of fund freezes and seizures have much more serious consequences and legal aid lawyers can ensure that the most vulnerable populations in Virginia have access to the funds they need for food and sheltering in place.

Throughout Virginia, legal aid providers and volunteer lawyers have quickly adapted to serve as many people as they can through remote client consultations, online and social media information and legal guidance, representation in telephonic and video hearings and in-court hearings. But our front-line legal aid offices need much more support in the face of overwhelming new needs. And this support will become even more of a necessity as civil legal problems multiply in the fallout from this crisis.

An unprecedented number of workers need help in identifying eligibility for unemployment, as well as appealing wrongfully denied claims. Most have never had to navigate the public benefits system and, without legal assistance, far too many will not obtain their rightful benefits to weather job losses, reduced hours and illness. Many people need straightforward information about their entitlements under the federal CARES Act. Without legal aid, too many Virginians will not receive their relief checks that could have been used to pay their rent because their incomes were too low to file taxes last year or their accounts to which the relief funds are deposited will be seized by debt collectors.

Because of the legislature’s investment in legal aid over the past few years, we were in a much better position to provide our front-line response. However, with economically vulnerable populations growing exponentially due to the COVID-19 crisis, even more investment is needed to serve Virginians in the weeks and months to come. Instead, a $1.5 million increase to civil legal aid’s state general revenue appropriation, recently adopted by the legislature to combat the high rate of evictions in Virginia, has been removed by the governor’s amendments to the budget in anticipation of the veto session today.

We understand the need for pressing the pause button on new spending, but this removal of funds specifically intended to reduce evictions will hinder legal aid’s ability to meet the flood of evictions coming as a result of the pandemic. It comes at the same time as two other major funding sources for civil legal aid are projected to decline dramatically in the coming months as effects of COVID-19: Legal aid receives IOLTA funding (Interest on Lawyers Trust Accounts) that is based on the federal funds rate.

With the recent announcement that the rate would drop to near zero percent, IOLTA rates are following and dropping to .05 percent. Annualized, this would be a $1.3 million-dollar loss in legal aid funding in the coming year. And, the largest funding source for legal aid, a special state appropriation from court filing fees, declined over 50 percent in March. Carrying that monthly loss through June 30 means an additional $1 million loss in funding for legal aid. Facing $2.5 million in losses on top of the removal of its $1.5 general revenue increase means legal aid programs across Virginia, on the front-line of alleviating the impact of COVID-19 for vulnerable Virginians, will have to do so with far fewer resources.

While we haven’t seen data specific to Virginia, we know that 911 calls for domestic violence have increased under stay-at-home orders and school closures. Domestic violence advocates warn that at-risk partners and children can be cut off from support networks and isolated in abusive homes. With courts operating remotely, survivors need help securing protective orders. Civil legal aid attorneys are providing this urgent access to the justice system, helping families get the protection they need.

We likely all know someone unable to pay their rent or mortgage. Civil legal aid programs have already been inundated with requests for help from tenants and homeowners worried about how they will avoid eviction or foreclosure when they will be months behind on their payments. Without timely access to civil legal aid, a dispute with a lender or landlord can easily lead to homelessness.

We were making great strides in closing the civil justice gap in Virginia after the recent investments by the governor and legislature in the work of legal aid, but the current crisis is generating a wave of needs that will overwhelm our legal aid system. With tens of thousands of Virginians added to the poverty population by this pandemic, we must redouble our commitment to a legal system that provides justice for everyone.

Substantial and sustained support for civil legal aid must be part of our government’s short and long-term policy responses to COVID-19 at all levels. Emergency federal stimulus funding should be directed to boosting service capacity. ThecCommonwealth should step up its own investment or at a minimum not remove the increase for legal aid in the adopted state budget. City and county leaders should make similar investments.

We can see the needs now, and we know what is coming. Increased support will ensure that legal aid can effectively help guide Virginians through the recovery as well.

Mark D. Braley, esquire, is the executive director of the Legal Services Corporation of Virginia, which funds and oversees the work of nine regional Legal Aid programs and a statewide support center, the Virginia Poverty Law Center, that operate out of 35 offices and serve every city and county in Virginia.