Pro bono service is more important during COVID-19
Volunteer attorneys are needed to help renters who may be facing eviction.
The Jacksonville Bar Association
| 5:00 a.m. September 3, 2020
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The Bar Bulletin
By Sarah Sullivan • Three Rivers Legal Services pro bono director
Many times when I have been at networking events with attorneys, when I explain my job as pro bono director for Three Rivers Legal Services Inc., people ask, “What exactly is pro bono?” or “What about those cases where the attorney never gets paid ... is that pro bono?”
Pro bono legal service is defined as direct free legal assistance to an eligible client or client group or free legal services to charitable, religious or educational organizations whose overall mission and activities are designed predominantly to address the needs of the poor.
Eligible clients include people with low income, even if they have jobs.
A good-faith determination should be made that the financial situation is such that access to the legal system will be unavailable without volunteer assistance.
In the early 1990s, the state Supreme Court ruled that Florida attorneys should aspire to perform 20 hours of pro bono work annually; in lieu of service, attorneys are asked to contribute at least $350 to a legal aid program.
Although the aspirational goal is not mandatory, Florida attorneys are required to report their pro bono hours and/or contributions.
Since the court’s ruling, the number of attorneys licensed in Florida has grown but the number of hours donated is fairly unchanged.
Our legal community in Jacksonville always has been generous with their volunteer time and fundraising efforts. For that, we are extremely grateful to all of you who provide advice, brief services, representation, mentorship and financial contributions on behalf of our low-income residents.
During this exceptional time in our history when many people have been negatively impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic and the related financial meltdown, people that may have been ineligible for services at the beginning of March now are facing unemployment, eviction, foreclosure or bankruptcy.
Only lawyers have the skills and knowledge needed to secure access to justice through the legal system.
For low‑income people, whose unmet legal needs are well documented, volunteer attorneys who work with legal services programs have the ability to help bridge the gap.
Legal services programs reach out to the low-income communities to let them know about help available. Social service agencies refer those in need to legal services offices. Most low-income residents will not contact a private attorney to ask for pro bono help; they will contact a legal services agency.
According to the American Bar Association, at least 40% of low- and moderate-income households experience a legal problem each year, yet studies show that the collective civil legal aid effort meets only about 20% of the need.
Steps are being taken to provide advice through Florida Free Legal Answers and self-help centers at courthouses across the state, but for the majority of the poor, these services are not enough.
Three Rivers Legal Services created a pro bono opportunity to meet the needs of residents enduring significant legal issues because of the pandemic.
Volunteer attorneys are needed to assist renters who have been impacted by COVID-19 to negotiate with landlords to extend or terminate leases.
These clients are not in the eviction process. They are individuals and families who need to extend or terminate their leases because of job loss, illness, change of plans, etc., because of COVID-19.
Attorneys will negotiate on behalf of renters who either have leases that are set to expire during the pandemic and need to extend their lease (i.e. if they are in quarantine or in a high-risk category), or need to terminate a lease for housing because they can no longer afford to pay rent because they lost income.
Others cannot take possession of a home they have leased because of COVID-19.
Three Rivers provides volunteer attorneys with training materials and a fact sheet about COVID-19 protections. The client’s information will be provided and we ask that you assist the client in a negotiation with the landlord.
We will run conflict checks with you and our staff attorneys will be available to answer questions. All interactions with the clients can be handled virtually, primarily by telephone.
We provide confirmation of Three Rivers’ malpractice insurance coverage for those who do not carry their own or need confirmation for their employer. We also cover volunteer attorneys assisting referred clients.
This project provides the pro bono attorney a way to positively impact people facing major hurdles related to COVID-19 and keep them housed at a time when our community is facing a difficult recovery.
Understanding and serving the legal needs of low-income people, particularly in this exceptional time in history, fulfills The Florida Bar’s recommended pro bono service. It also provides a vital component of the social safety net that can lift our neighbors out of their current crisis toward a more certain future.