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Low-income Earners in Need of Legal Services, Courts to Benefit from CARES Act

The recently passed Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act (PDF) is a thick text featuring measures dealing with nearly every sector of the economy. Baked into the bill are a number of provisions directly impacting law firms, the courts and those navigating the judicial system. Even with the injection, though, concerns about potential shortfalls still loom.

capitol 720677 640smallThe American Bar Association (ABA) enumerated some of the key sections of the stimulus package pertaining to legal services in a recent review. In an effort to specifically address the needs of low-income residents dealing with the COVID-19 health crisis, the Legal Services Corporation (LCS) received an emergency $50 million allocation, according to the ABA.

The funding will go toward assisting the LSC’s 132 grantees tasked with aiding low-income clients who are now facing eviction, layoff and other pandemic-related problems, according to the group. The group anticipates fallout from the pandemic will generate a “significant spike” in demand for legal services among low-income residents.

“We are grateful that Congress has recognized that COVID-19 is going to dramatically increase the life-altering civil legal needs faced by low income Americans and that legal aid can make a meaningful difference in addressing those needs,” said Ronald S. Flagg, president of the LSC.

Increased rates of domestic violence, attempts to scam the elderly, access to healthcare and a spike in layoffs and evictions are among some of the chief areas of concern, according to LSC. The LSC estimates it will cost upwards of $100 million to address this anticipated bump in legal services demand.

Further, remedies to fiscal shortfalls due to the pandemic are more complex than simply handing sums of money over to legal aid providers. The LSC warns there remains a potential risk to the immediate health of lawyer trust accounts—these accounts are a crucial source of funding for civil aid providers—in the wake of the Federal Reserve’s decision to cut interest rates to near zero. On average, LSC-funded entities get approximately 5.4% of their funding from these accounts, states the corporation.

CARES Act Covers Student Loans, Electioneering and the Courts: ABA

Additionally, the ABA highlighted some of the other ways the CARES Act addresses the legal sector and its imminent funding shortfalls. They include:

  • A suspension of federal loan repayment obligations for student borrowers until Wednesday, Sept. 30. Until then, interest will not accrue and borrows will be credited as if they made their payments
  • There will be a $6 million allocation to bolster telework capabilities, probation and pretrial services for federal courts, $500,000 for the U.S. Supreme Court’s remote working capacity, and $1 million to the U.S. Defender Services toward that same end
  • A $400 million boost to states ahead of the 2020 federal election cycle
  • A $100 million allocation the Federal Bureau of Prisons for “personal protective equipment, testing materials, home detention, electronic monitoring, and other alternatives to incarceration to improve prison conditions”
  • And, $850 million in “expedited” grant funding to local and state jails and police departments for “local health protection needs.” Temporary rules will allow audio and video conferences for certain procedures like “detention hearings, arraignments, and misdemeanor pleas and sentencings.” Is also permits free video and telephone and visitations and “relaxed rules on early release and home confinement.”

“Prisons and jails are some of the highest-risk environments for the spread of COVID-19,” said ABA President Judy Perry Martinez in a statement. “The ABA is encouraged that the COVID-19 economic stimulus includes provisions to allow prisons greater access to personal protective equipment and COVID-19 testing materials. The ABA is further encouraged by the bill’s provisions that expand use of home detention and electronic monitoring.”

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