The need for civil legal aid is increasing, and under difficult conditions Maine’s legal aid providers are responding to COVID-19.
Evictions: Imagine, in the disruption and uncertainty of the last two weeks, being evicted and needing to find a new apartment in just a few days. Residents of an Augusta rental property say they were told on March 13 that they would need to be out of the building in one week. For them and us, the safe haven of home in the face of a pandemic is a basic need. Many of the residents say they have no other place to go: given the current health crisis, many landlords aren’t renting.
In the case of 33 Stone Street in Augusta, mentioned above, Pine Tree Legal Assistance and city officials stepped forward last week when a building resident alerted the media. Now, the legal aid provider is seeking to delay the building’s closure, giving residents of the occupied units, among them a pregnant woman and a disabled veteran, adequate time to relocate.
Domestic abuse: Social distancing, shelter-in-place and isolation have much different implications for victims of domestic violence. Home is not a safe haven but the one place where abusers exercise the most control over their victims. Domestic abuse is likely to worsen during the nationwide lockdown. Victims will be less willing to reach out to shelters during the pandemic. And victims with no paid sick leave or who have been laid off from work will have even less ability to escape their abusive environment.
Family law: Child-custody arrangements have been thrown into disarray as one parent or another seeks to change the agreement or simply ignores it due to the changes wrought by COVID-19. Family law attorneys are already seeing such cases. When one parent is considered an “essential” employee and may have more exposure to the coronavirus, the situation becomes more complicated.
Elders: Maine’s aging population is especially vulnerable to the coronavirus. The Bangor Daily News wrote, “The share of Maine’s vulnerable adult population was second among U.S. states — only behind West Virginia,” according to an analysis by the Kaiser Family Foundation.
Helpline attorneys at Legal Services for the Elderly continue to staff the toll free numbers during regular business hours. Callers are often more anxious and agitated when they call but relieved to find that expert help is still on the other end of the phone.
LSE faces unique challenges in serving seniors who are victims of elder abuse. While the courts remain open in the case of Protective Orders, their clients are at high risk for contracting the virus and should be remaining at home. Many can’t participate in telephonic hearings due to hearing problems. When the home is not safe, and appearing in court is not safe, the right path is not always clear. LSE is developing an array of possible responses for these situations in which the normal path may well not be available.
Policy advocacy: A statewide policy advocate, Maine Equal Justice is working to expand access to unemployment insurance for people impacted by Covid-19. MEJ’s Policy Team shared their recommendations with the Maine Department of Labor to promptly get unemployment insurance to people who were asked not to come to work or because of illness. The Governor embraced these ideas, and a bill passed two weeks ago to help keep people whole economically.
MEJ promptly hosted a Zoom meeting, working with AFL-CIO and the Labor Commissioner, attended by over 700 people and got the word out to employees and employers about these changes. And a new page on their website has up-to-date information on how to access public assistance during this time and any changes that have been made.
Immigration law: The COVID-19 crisis is having a significant impact on the U.S. immigration system, the practice of immigration law and Maine’s immigrant communities. And unfortunately, it comes after three years of destructive policy changes and attacks on due process, access to justice and constitutional protections.
In the face of this latest crisis, the Immigration Legal Advocacy Project (ILAP) is still here, dedicated to supporting the legal needs of low-income immigrants and committed to providing reliable information for all. From getting people out of detention to ensuring asylum seekers meet their one-year filing deadline, our staff and volunteer attorneys are continuing their complex work with clients.
ILAP is also providing consultations and forms assistance remotely for urgent matters, as well as making more self-help resources and legal information available on our website. And we are amplifying our important outreach and advocacy efforts to bring reliable and timely information about COVID-19 to our community, while joining with our partners to fight for the rights and safety of Maine’s immigrants.
You can see the latest developments in ILAP’s March 2020 Golden Door newsletter.
The Next Generation: At the same time that all of their law school classes were moved online, the student attorneys of the University of Maine School of Law Cumberland Legal Aid Clinic continued their direct representation of clients and broad-impact advocacy work. The Clinic made the necessary arrangements to ensure that the students could continue to provide legal help to survivors of domestic violence, prisoners in the state prison system, juveniles in detention, New Mainers seeking legal status, and other clients with urgent legal matters.
One way you can help: The Maine Volunteer Lawyers Project has closed its in-person clinics and switched its focus to its helplines and maine.freelegalanswers.org. You can find out more here and, if qualified, register as a volunteer attorney.
To learn more about Maine’s legal aid providers, visit them at:
Cumberland Legal Aid Clinic
Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project
Legal Services for the Elderly
Maine Equal Justice
Pine Tree Legal Assistance
Volunteer Lawyers Project