The Marbut Report: Pro bono hours slump amid pandemic

The cancellation of clinics and other events is impacting local legal aid providers.

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In a year when legal practices are limited because of COVID-19, slightly more lawyers reported providing pro bono services in 2019-20 than the previous year, although the amount of assistance declined, reports The Florida Bar.

According to figures provided to the Pro Bono Legal Services Committee on Oct. 7 during the Bar’s fall meeting, 40,344 lawyers reported individually donating 1.293 million hours of pro bono work in the 2019-20 Bar year.

Another 643 provided 19,531 hours through law firm pro bono plans.

That compares with 40,002 lawyers who did 1.6 million hours of individual pro bono work and 577 who did 24,149 hours through law firm plans in 2018-19.

Another 24,368 attorneys reported donating almost $6.4 million to legal aid programs in 2019-20, compared with 22,228 lawyers who donated $6.2 million the previous year.

Local legal aid providers say the state statistics mirror what’s happening in Northeast Florida from consequences of COVID-19 shutdowns and social distancing.

“Our numbers are lower because so many of our events have been canceled,” said Missy Davenport, pro bono director at Jacksonville Area Legal Aid.

Before COVID-19, JALA hosted weekly in-person legal clinics at its office Downtown and at senior centers and other facilities, connecting volunteer attorneys with people who need help.

With the office closed to the public and JALA attorneys mostly working remotely, only a few in-person appointments are available each week, Davenport said.

“We’re making the transition to virtual with telephone consultations and Zoom clinics,” she said.

Financial contributions to JALA are lower than last year because events promoting donations have been canceled, Davenport said.

The loss of personal contact hasn’t reduced the public’s demand for civil legal aid, however.

“We have seen an increased need for bankruptcy, foreclosure and eviction defense. This makes sense because the Florida eviction moratorium is lifted, people have been out of work, temporary furloughs are becoming permanent layoffs and people have been unable to pay bills for several months,” said Sarah Sullivan, pro bono director at Three Rivers Legal Services in Jacksonville.

“Our pro bono attorneys have been especially engaged, knowing all of the legal turmoil after several months of decline due to the pandemic. They have reached out and raised their hands to help, but we always need more volunteers,” Sullivan said.

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