It starts like this: “I have a question …”
The writer is concerned about an ex who isn’t practicing social distancing but wants to see their two children.
“I just want to make sure I am legally doing the right thing,” the person writes. “Any insight would be appreciated.”
This year, volunteer lawyers have already answered more than 350 questions on Free Legal Answers Maine, a website where low-income people can get free legal advice on civil matters like child custody and tenant rights. The site is on track to soon outpace its traffic from last year – 479 questions in all of 2019 – due to increased demand related to the coronavirus.
The Maine Volunteer Lawyers Project, which maintains the site, allowed a reporter to review sample questions, but it did not share any identifying information or the legal advice provided to users, including the parent with shared custody.
As the pandemic continues, civil legal aid organizations are bracing for a surge in demand that they expect will extend beyond the end of the public health crisis. More people will need legal advice on evictions, divorces, protection from abuse orders and other civil matters. Fewer people will be able to afford it.
Those legal aid organizations already struggled to serve every potential client, and the crisis has jeopardized their traditional funding streams.
“Pine Tree has never had enough resources to say yes to everybody who needs our help, but saying no is hard, and saying no is particularly hard at this moment in time,” Nan Heald, the executive director of Pine Tree Legal Assistance, said Thursday during a virtual presentation. “We know we are going to say no to even more people because of increased demand and the increased number of people who are eligible for our services.”
The pandemic also forced the closure of the Maine Community Law Center, a nonprofit law firm that charged on a sliding scale. That model targeted people who did not qualify for free civil legal aid but still could not afford to hire a lawyer. But the firm ran on client funds and did not have any reserves, and its income disappeared when the courts closed.
“The model works, it has worked,” former executive director Elizabeth Stout said. “It’s just that we were so small and fragile.”
Federal and state law guarantees the right to an attorney for anyone who is charged with a crime, parents in child protective cases and indigent people who are facing involuntary commitment to a psychiatric hospital. If those people cannot afford a lawyer, the court will appoint one at the cost of the government.
But people do not have that guarantee in most civil matters, like evictions. In those cases, people who meet certain income requirements can turn to civil legal aid organizations for advice or representation. A 2017 report by the federal Legal Services Commission found that more than 70 percent of low-income households experienced at least one legal problem in the previous year, including problems with domestic violence, housing conditions and health care.
Maine has a number of providers that do that work in different ways – including Pine Tree Legal Assistance, Legal Services for the Elderly, the Cumberland Legal Aid Clinic at the University of Maine School of Law, Maine Equal Justice Partners, the Maine Volunteer Lawyers Project, the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project and Disability Rights Maine.
During the pandemic, the courts have limited their hours and delayed many hearings. Some civil matters, like protection from abuse orders, have been considered a priority. Others, like small claims cases and evictions, remain on hold.
Civil legal aid organizations can no longer offer free clinics at the courthouses or open intake hours at their offices. But they are still working with existing clients and getting new requests for help. Some, like Legal Services for the Elderly and the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project, serve specific groups that are have unique concerns during the pandemic. Others offer more general legal services.
As the largest general provider, Pine Tree Legal is seeing the same total number of calls, but the types of inquiries have changed. Maureen Boston, the intake manager, said they are fielding more calls than usual about unemployment insurance benefits, workplace safety and taxes related to the pandemic. They talked to fewer people about eviction issues in the last two months than in the same period last year – 270 compared to 380 – but that number is still alarming.
“This is significant considering the courts are not holding eviction hearings, there are federal moratoriums on subsidized evictions, and the governor has placed restrictions on enforcing eviction judgments from prior to the court closings,” Boston said.
Deirdre Smith, who runs the law school’s Cumberland Legal Aid Clinic, said her student attorneys have been appearing in virtual hearings on protection from abuse cases. But they are also answering questions for clients whose cases are delayed, providing advice about what to do with federal stimulus money while a family law case is still open and how to access services for children with special needs. The clinic manages about 100 open cases, and most are civil matters.
“Even if they are not going to court, their lives are no less complex,” Smith said about their clients.
The Maine Volunteer Lawyers Project is still taking inquiries for new representation, but it’s also promoting Free Legal Answers Maine as an alternative to its usual free clinics.
In recent weeks, the site has seen a particular spike in questions about family law. People are asking about how their custody agreements are impacted by stay-at-home orders, and what to do if a parent who pays child support is now unemployed. Other questions are coming in related to protection from abuse and harassment cases, employee rights, bankruptcy, housing and end-of-life documents, such as wills.
“There’s a high level of anxiety always with legal issues, but it definitely has increased,” said Beth Richardson, who oversees the Free Legal Answers Maine website.
Attorney Michael Asen has spent more than 30 years practicing family law and litigating divorces. When he began to reduce his hours at his firm, a friend suggested he volunteer with Free Legal Answers of Maine. Asen now handles many of the family law questions on the site and estimated that he answered questions for 200 people last year.
“Even people who are not destitute cannot really afford legal services anymore,” Asen said. “Legal services have become a privilege of the rich, or at least the comfortable. Pine Tree fills some of that void at the bottom of the economic ladder, but there’s very little that fills it in the middle.”
“That’s where I think this website fills a really critical need, so people can represent themselves but get advice during the process,” he added.
The Maine Community Law Center also tried to fill that gap, but Stout said she did not want to compete with existing civil legal aid organizations for resources that are already limited. So she did not seek donations and ran the firm entirely on client fees. Their sliding scale started at $75 an hour, which Stout estimated is half of the going rate for comparable services in southern Maine.
Founded in 2015, the firm was a legal incubator, where new attorneys could complete a residency with more experienced mentors. They provided full representation for some clients in court, but they also offered limited representation so clients could get at least some advice outside the courtroom.
Stout said they had about 100 open matters when they decided to close May 1, and she was mostly able to place those clients with attorneys who agreed to honor the reduced-fee agreements. She said she hopes the project can be revived in a more sustainable way so people can have more affordable access to lawyers.
“In the scale of litigation, they’re relatively small cases,” she said. “But to the people involved, they’re critically important.”
In the coming weeks, civil legal aid organizations said they expect to see an increase in demand. More people are at risk of losing their housing or experiencing abuse, so they could have new legal needs. Delayed hearings will finally be scheduled, so those clients will need advice or representation in court. And more people will lose income and qualify for civil legal aid.
“Economic downturns are really devastating to people living with low incomes,” Boston said. “The situation is already forcing more people into poverty.”
But the same crisis is also jeopardizing the revenue for these organizations.
A significant portion of their funding comes from what is called Interest on Lawyers Trust Accounts, or IOLTA. Lawyers have trust accounts for client funds, and the interest on those accounts typically goes to civil legal aid. But the Federal Reserve slashed interest rates in response to the pandemic, so that IOLTA income has plummeted.
The Maine Justice Foundation administers IOLTA funds for civil legal aid organizations, and executive director Diana Scully said last year that money amounted to more than $1 million, and she expected a similar or better return this year. Now she is predicting a 39 percent decline for the rest of fiscal 2020. The foundation had to cut the last quarterly payment to its beneficiaries by 10 percent.
The state administers the Maine Civil Legal Services Fund, which collects money from court fees and fines. That fund distributed more than $1.2 million in 2019. But when the courts are closed, that funding stream is just a trickle. Scully said the providers she works with are saying they could lose more than $1 million from that fund this year.
“It’s pretty sobering,” Scully said.
Juliet Holmes-Smith, executive director of the Maine Volunteer Lawyers Project, said her organization and others are looking for new sources of funding, whether that comes from the government or other charitable foundations.
“Where that money comes from is just dropping off the cliff,” Holmes-Smith said.
Pine Tree Legal Assistance also receives federal funds from the Legal Services Corp., and Heald said the organization applied for and received a forgivable payroll loan as part of federal aid during the pandemic. But the future is still uncertain, and Heald said her organization and others will need more volunteer lawyers who can take cases for free, especially because hiring more attorneys will likely be impossible.
“Legal services seldom wrap up quickly,” Heald said. “If we start cases in the fall, we’re going to need to have funding that will allow us to finish those cases in 2021, and right now, I’m really worried about that.”
Smith said she too is concerned, especially because civil legal aid organizations already cannot meet the need in the community.
“There’s so much benefit from early intervention from a lawyer before the situation becomes a crisis,” Smith said. “As with so many other aspects of this pandemic, it is really shining a light on a critical need that is always there.”