Skip to main content

Responding to Civil Legal Needs During the Pandemic and its Aftermath

COVID-19 has impacted lives globally in unprecedented ways. North Carolina schools and businesses have closed their doors, leaving many unemployed and uncertain of when they can return to work. Governor Roy Cooper’s March 27, 2020, Executive Order further directed non-essential businesses to temporarily cease in-person operations and ordered residents to stay home for all but truly necessary activities. While the restrictions implemented in response to the pandemic have impacted individuals and businesses across all income levels, the disruption to income and access to childcare and other needed services disproportionately affects those already struggling to meet their basic needs.

As low-income individuals and small business owners work to secure economic relief and keep themselves healthy during this challenging time, civil legal aid becomes even more vital. Between March 15 and May 7, 2020, more than 1 million North Carolinians filed for unemployment insurance and more applications are received each day. Domestic violence reports have also seen a dramatic increase. Charlotte-Mecklenburg police have received 389 more domestic violence calls this March compared to last March, and domestic violence calls in Guilford County saw an increase of 30% over the previous year. Civil legal needs will continue to rise for protection from domestic violence, prevention of evictions and foreclosures, and issues related to employment. As the long-term effects of COVID-19 continue to evolve, the threat to North Carolina and our state’s most vulnerable residents goes beyond the pandemic.

Here to Help

In the wake of a disaster, legal aid attorneys are a vital part of recovery by removing barriers to critically needed support. Civil legal aid providers, including many organizations that receive funding from NC IOLTA, are committed to proactively protect the rights of all North Carolinians in times of crisis and to work to provide immediate services for North Carolina’s most vulnerable populations to maintain access to housing, food, and other basic needs. Legal aid organizations have responded to emerging issues with independent and collaborative efforts to ensure protection of rights for low-wage workers, the incarcerated, individuals with disabilities, the elderly, and other at-risk populations. Jim Barrett, executive director of Pisgah Legal Services, addressed the need for civil legal aid stating, “Pisgah Legal Services continues to serve clients while working remotely and communicating via phone and email. In this time of uncertainty, many more people will have legal needs related to housing, health, safety from abuse, and economic security. We are committed to meeting those needs.” Presently, legal aid organizations are working to identify and address immediate legal needs, such as obtaining access to medical insurance, completing small business loan applications, negotiating rent for subsidized housing, and making referrals for community services.

As civil legal aid organizations continue to provide much-needed relief to those affected by unexpected changes in employment and income, it is unclear when the disaster relief period will end, much less when those affected will begin to overcome the broader financial hurdles they are facing. Long after the immediate crisis period, civil legal aid organizations will be called on to address legal needs such as foreclosure and bankruptcy assistance, mortgage renegotiations, consumer scams and disputes, modification of parenting orders based on the new educational environment, and civil and disability rights. Viruses can be treated and spread can be limited with thoughtful public health measures. To address the growing civil legal needs of North Carolina’s vulnerable populations, unfettered access to the justice system is the cure.

Path to Recovery

At a time when the need for civil legal aid reaches its height, support for the nonprofit sector as a whole may take a hit. Nonprofit fundraisers have been canceled and, due to economic conditions, available income from individual donors has likely decreased. Nonprofits across the state, including the community of civil legal aid providers, need additional resources and support to meet the rising demands. North Carolina State Bar President Colon Willoughby wrote to Governor Cooper regarding the pressing need for legal services to be considered “essential” during this time, stating, “In times of crisis and uncertainty, lawyers play a vital role in the preservation of society. We stand ready to fulfill our professional responsibilities on behalf of the citizens of our great state.” Mr. Willoughby further addressed attorneys saying, “While it may be exceedingly difficult at a time when you are faced with so many competing obligations, I encourage you to increase your pro bono efforts during this period of crisis.”

For attorneys who seek to serve the legal needs of the public during this time, consider a donation to a civil legal aid organization or make a commitment to provide pro bono legal services. The NC Pro Bono Resource Center serves as a resource to connect attorneys with available opportunities. Visit ncprobono.org/disaster to learn more about how you can help respond to the need.

Impact on IOLTA Revenue

In the Winter 2019 State Bar Journal, an article written by NC IOLTA Executive Director Mary Irvine addressed the future of IOLTA given changes in the banking industry and the legal profession. It was unknown at the time the article was written that the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic would jumpstart a turn to a low interest rate environment. Changes to interest rates and effects on the economy overall will undoubtedly impact the program’s income. However, NC IOLTA, with the steadfast leadership of the Board of Trustees, has taken steps to ensure sustainability of the program and continued support for IOLTA grantees amidst times of crisis. Because grants awarded through NC IOLTA are funded with prior year’s income, any slow in the economy in 2020 will not impact IOLTA’s ability to meet grant commitments as awarded in 2020. In recent years, IOLTA has also prioritized the rebuilding of the reserve fund that was largely depleted following the Great Recession. In 2019 alone, the IOLTA Board designated that $1.25 million dollars of IOLTA income be added to the reserve fund. Further, strategic support grants awarded by NC IOLTA for 2020 contributed to technology and infrastructure improvements of civil legal aid providers, projects which improve the capacity of providers to work remotely and to continue serving low-income clients in need. While both the short-term and long-term effects of the pandemic on IOLTA program revenue are still uncertain, the IOLTA staff and board remain focused on maximizing available funding and supporting the critical needs of civil legal aid and administration of justice efforts.

Looking Forward

With the lives and livelihoods of so many on the line and much uncertainty still ahead for us all, the picture of our post-pandemic state remains fuzzy. The way we operate has been upended, and, as a result, businesses and organizations have created innovative methods to conduct business, provide services, stay connected to our communities, and collaborate with one another. With the support of members of the State Bar, North Carolina and the legal sector in particular can recover from this crisis through innovation and with a reaffirmed commitment to civil legal aid and access to justice for all. 

IOLTA Update

• On March 16, 2020, the Federal Funds Target Rate was cut to 0.00 – 0.25. The rate cut coupled with economic impacts of the coronavirus pandemic are expected to significantly decrease IOLTA revenue in 2020.

• As the rate environment changes, NC IOLTA is communicating with a number of financial institutions that hold IOLTA accounts for North Carolina lawyers. Many banks are in the process of changing their rates and are also considering changes to IOLTA products. IOLTA encourages banks to communicate with our office regarding proposed changes to ensure continued compliance with the State Bar rules regarding IOLTA. Information about the rules and eligible financial institutions can be found at nciolta.org.