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Civil legal aid more important than ever

by Beth Baker
| May 17, 2020 10:16 AM

As the impacts of the COVID-19 crisis grow daily, health and economic hardships can quickly develop into legal problems, for which most Montana families are completely unprepared. Legal problems can be the breaking point when added to the stress and heartbreak employees, contract workers, small business owners, and families experience as they look toward an uncertain future. As low-wage workers and families struggle to pay rent, access public benefits, and understand the changing landscape of their legal rights, civil legal aid for Montanans who can’t afford a private lawyer is essential to Montana’s pandemic response.

Legal issues arising from the pandemic are soon likely to overwhelm Montana’s legal aid capacity. Before COVID-19, Montana had just one civil legal aid lawyer for every 9,800 people living in poverty. Unlike criminal cases, people dealing with a civil justice crisis do not have the right to an attorney at public expense.

With the state projecting to lose over 50,000 jobs, Montanans who never before applied for public benefits now find themselves navigating a complex system. Many need legal assistance to secure access to unemployment benefits and food assistance so they can care for their families’ basic needs. Additionally, isolation and increased stress at home are two big risk factors for domestic violence. Civil legal aid keeps people fed, housed, and safe—measures that are imperative to our communities’ recovery.

Service providers like the Montana Legal Services Association and local domestic violence organizations, together with the help of many volunteer lawyers, have transitioned to virtual law firms in the wake of the crisis. They are responding to questions and providing assistance to Montanans facing new job losses, health impacts, domestic abuse, public benefits confusion, and potential loss of housing.

But Montanans’ legal needs from the COVID-19 crisis are just beginning. If, as anticipated, economic conditions continue to worsen even as the health pandemic subsides, demand for civil legal aid will increase, not decrease, over time. For Montanans forced to navigate the legal system on their own when the cost of an attorney is out of reach, the consequences can be dire, affecting whether they can be safe from violence, support their families, stay in their homes, and protect their parents and grandparents from scams.

The pandemic’s effect on Montanans’ civil legal needs is urgent and will be long-lasting. The Governor’s advisory council has recommended enhanced support for providers of immediate social safety net services. Civil legal aid should be part of that immediate response in putting federal CARES Act dollars to work for those most affected. And we must commit to a long-term state strategy to strengthen our capacity to serve our neighbors’ legal needs in these uncertain times and beyond. Montana’s justice system must be ready to respond if we expect true and lasting recovery.

Justice Beth Baker is Montana Supreme Court Chair