ABA Young Lawyers Division establishes national hotline for pandemic-related legal services
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Updated: The ABA Young Lawyers Division has created a national hotline to connect those needing legal services during the COVID-19 pandemic through its Disaster Legal Services Program.
The toll-free number, provided by RingCentral Inc., is 888-743-5749, according to an ABA press release.
The hotline greets callers in English or Spanish, then uses voice commands to direct those needing legal services related to COVID-19 to the appropriate state hotline.
The hotline began routing calls to Texas and Nebraska on April 2. Other states are expected to follow with their own hotlines for coronavirus-related legal services.
The Disaster Legal Services Program coordinates legal services to low-income victims of disasters with the help of volunteer lawyers and state bar associations. The program is operated in conjunction with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and local legal aid offices.
Since 2007, the program has provided legal help to victims of more than 193 declared disasters, including hurricanes Sandy and Harvey.
Linda Anderson Stanley, the director of disaster legal services for the ABA Young Lawyers Division, spoke with the ABA Journal about the program via email.
ABA Journal: What kinds of legal services will be needed by people affected by COVID-19?
Stanley: How much time do you have? In addition to the traditional housing, insurance, consumer scams and public benefits matters we see in the face of a disaster, unique and complicated issues arise. They include access to justice when the courts are closed, increased prevalence of domestic violence due to statewide shelter-in-place orders, access to health care, education issues, voter suppression, and employment/unemployment law-related questions. The list is seemingly endless.
ABA Journal: How can lawyers volunteer?
Stanley: The disaster legal services team is currently working on building an easy-to-use national platform to view and register for pro bono opportunities. We hope to have that live in the coming weeks—more to come on that. In the meantime, make sure that you are registered as a pro bono attorney with your local legal services agency. Now is a really good time to offer pro bono services for more traditional and perhaps non-COVID-related pro bono cases. This will tremendously help legal services organizations to focus on new policy guidelines regarding evictions while also helping clients secure their economic impact payments and protecting domestic violence victims. These legal issues will expand in the coming months, if not years. We have not seen the half of it yet, so be patient. Everyone wants to help now, but the legal services attorneys and the DLS team are going to need you six to nine months from now. Use your time now to attend COVID-19-related trainings, and be responsive in a few months when we reach back out and really need you. Many states also have ABA Free Legal Answers, which is a good place to plug in for some pro bono hours. Free Legal Answers is a virtual advice clinic where lawyers provide information and basic legal advice without any expectation of long-term representation.
ABA Journal: The ABA press release mentions that two states have begun operating hotlines. How soon are other state hotlines expected to begin operating?
Stanley: Several states will have their hotlines integrated into the national hotline within the next week, and we anticipate a majority of states to have hotlines within the next few weeks. The Disaster Legal Services Program is one of the federal programs that may be triggered when there is a major disaster declaration that authorizes individual assistance. Our response to the COVID-19 pandemic is a deviation of how the program typically works, as we are not waiting for FEMA to make a formal request … . We hope DLS will be formally triggered, as this would obligate the federal government to provide partial reimbursement for operational costs to the entity hosting the hotline. Nebraska and Texas, two states hit hard by disasters in the past few years, have their infrastructure in place and were able to quickly “switch on” their hotline. Other states are building their hotline from the ground up or don’t have the resources to manage the hotline without these critical funds.
ABA Journal: What happens if a caller to the national toll-free number is from a state where there is no hotline?
Stanley: Our message prompts individuals to continue to check the system as states continue to activate their hotlines. Most states are eager to get their hotline tapped into the national hotline. Some states will decline to implement disaster hotlines, but our goal is to have every state and territory integrated into the national hotline.
ABA Journal: In the past, the Disaster Legal Services Program focused on local disasters, such as hurricanes and earthquakes. How difficult is it to get a nationwide program off the ground? What has gone in to planning?
Stanley: This certainly is no easy task. Much blood, sweat, tears and many sleepless nights have gone into thinking about this. There are a lot of moving pieces, but what I can say is that we are trying to work with all of the local affiliates, legal services agencies and other partners to assess the need and make sure we have a plan in place to implement DLS when that time comes. Will it be difficult to implement on a national level? No doubt. Can we do it? No doubt. We have an amazing core group of attorneys around the country volunteering their time to participate in the DLS team. They’ve been working many long hours in addition to their day jobs to prepare for a COVID-19 implementation while continuing to work on natural disasters as they occur. We also have a great support team of local agencies and attorneys on the ground already doing this great work. We’re putting together new infrastructure, such as the national toll-free number and creating new partnerships, to allow us the smoothest implementation possible.
ABA Journal: Do you have any other comments?
Stanley: Just to reiterate my appreciation of the dedication and countless volunteer hours logged by my team of DLS attorneys, the ABA staff and YLD leadership as we navigate these unprecedented waters and ensure access to free legal services for disaster survivors across the country.
Updated April 9 at 9:43 a.m. to include Stanley’s comments.