On Monday, the Legal Services Corporation held an incredibly informative briefing on the state of the courts and access to justice from coast to coast.
The two-hour program using Zoom and Facebook Live was broadcast publicly and is archived for anyone to review. It’s worth checking out if you’re interested in improving the courts and making sure everyone is afforded equal justice under the law.
But if you don’t want to sit through the panels of legal service providers, chief justices, and politicians, I’ll give you the highlights, at least the parts that caught my attention.
Overall, the picture was pretty bleak. The courts have shut down jury trials and, in many cases, are closed to regular business in terms of normal day-to-day volume of work. That means that cases are piling up. On top of that, courts are bracing for a massive influx of new cases once social distancing restrictions begin to lift.
At the same time, because of the worsening economic situation, courts are expecting a decrease in funding. Less money, more work. It’s a familiar scenario. But this time, with this volume and backlog, the weight could crush the justice system. It’s one of the many thoughts that keep the judges and legal services agency heads up at night.
Areas of significant concern are housing (especially when moratoria on evictions lift throughout the country); employment, domestic violence; and medical debt collection. The legal services providers and judges didn’t mention that last one. U.S. Rep. Joe Kennedy III, D-MA, was on the call and highlighted that area as an area he’s flagged to watch.
Another major concern is the health, safety, and overall wellbeing of staff.
“We have to have a healthy staff so we can provide aggressive and effective advocacy services we know are going to be needed,” said Raun Rasmussen, executive director of Legal Services NYC.
Rasmussen pointed out that the pandemic is going to hit certain populations harder, especially women (who are still tasked disproportionally with childcare responsibilities) and people of color. Considering these two populations make up the majority of Legal Services NYC staff, he’s pretty worried about his team and the clients they serve.
Laura Tuggle, executive director of Southeast Louisiana Legal Services in New Orleans, said she’s kept awake by thoughts about “how to keep staff safe while responding to the biggest civil legal aid crisis of our time.”
On a more positive note, the participating justices and legal aid agency heads shared their experiences with pivoting from in-person operations to fully or mostly remote.
“This crisis might not have been the disruption we wanted, but it’s the disruption we needed,” said Michigan Chief Justice Bridget McCormack.
Even before COVID-19 disrupted the world, Michigan was working at adopting new processes and technologies to bridge the access to justice gap with its Justice For All project. The goal then was to find ways to do the business of the courts differently to increase access to justice.
McCormack said that because COVID-19 has forced the court’s hand, Michigan is learning months of new lessons every day.
Several legal aid agencies were able to get attorneys up and running at home relatively quickly. The lawyers were most prepared to make the shift, but like with law firms, equipping support staff proved more challenging. I’m still a bit surprised by this. If an organization has a disaster plan, it needs to consider all operations and processes to serve clients (or customers).
Tuggle, in Louisiana, said they thought they were more prepared than they were. The agency already had Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP), so they could immediately shift intakes from the office to home-based workstations. They also had developed the ability to text clients.
But it still took longer to get support staff equipped and able to work remotely. The biggest ongoing challenge is serving the 50% of clients the agency receives from walk-ins. Tuggle says they’ve been trying to increase awareness by flyering food banks to be sure potential clients know how to access legal services.
César Torres, executive director of the Northwest Justice Project in Seattle, acknowledged they’re still short equipment. They ordered 100 laptops and have only received 50 so far.
Monica Vigues-Pitan, executive director of Legal Services of Greater Miami, said her agency felt primarily prepared for the pandemic because of a 2017 Legal Services Corp. grant for hardware and software upgrades. Their support staff was equipped as well as attorneys. Even though they thought they were preparing for a hurricane, they were able to shift quickly during the pandemic and keep operations running.
Again, her biggest challenge? She said it’s making sure clients know their open and ready to serve.
From the courts, the initial hurdles to overcome (after shifting to remote service) involved relaxing court procedures and rules to enable. The National Center for State Courts is continuing to track orders by state. Most of them are allowing judges to conduct court business via telephone or video conference.
Still, a backlog is mounting, especially relating to anything jury trial related. Those matters are on indefinite hold. And in California, the self-represented are left without much guidance. California Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Gorre Cantil-Sakauye reported to the group that her state’s extensive self-help system is “inoperable.”
“We’re going to need to find a way to get back to jury trials at some point,” said Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Nathan Hect, who is president of the Conference of Chief Justices.
Hect and other chief justices discussed how courts are bracing for a crush of legal matters in addition to dealing with the growing backlog of cases and, at the same time, are expecting funding cuts.
“We know that a tidal wave of legal needs is headed our way, and we have to be ready to respond,” said Judy Perry Martinez, president of the American Bar Association.
To address as many cases as possible, justices noted they suspended a number of court rules to allow for remote access on a temporary basis. Whereas video, fax, and email filing had been prohibited in many jurisdictions, that’s the norm now.
There is no sugarcoating the gravity of the current situation, and no-one on the call tried to do that. What I saw instead was a group of devoted public servants finding ways to power through an unprecedented crisis, eager to find solutions and uphold the rule of law.