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Marsha M. Mansfield: Wisconsin's civil legal aid providers need more support

Marsha M. Mansfield: Wisconsin's civil legal aid providers need more support

Judge with gavel, generic file photo

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, we uncover more challenges regarding the health and economic hardships facing our communities.

It is now clear that the COVID-19 outbreak leaves countless people with new and unanticipated civil legal challenges such as securing unemployment benefits, staying housed, guarding against abuse and much more.

Our government needs to use every available tool to provide relief in this time of crisis. That’s why civil legal aid must play an even larger role in the present emergency and during Wisconsin’s future recovery. Governors in several states have rightly noted that civil legal aid is a crucial component of the state’s comprehensive approach to the crisis. Unlike in criminal cases, people dealing with the civil justice system are not guaranteed representation by an attorney. That is why orders such as Gov. Evers’ recent order suspending evictions are so critically important at this time.

Throughout Wisconsin and in Dane County, legal aid providers such as Legal Action of Wisconsin, the Legal Aid Society, Judicare, the Dane County Bar Association, as well as the State Bar of Wisconsin have quickly adapted to serve as many people as they can through remote client consultations, virtual clinics and representation in telephonic emergency hearings. But these front-line programs need much more support in the face of overwhelming new needs. And this support will become even more of a necessity as civil legal problems burgeon in the fallout from this crisis.

As we know, an unprecedented number of workers need help identifying eligibility for unemployment and family leave benefits, as well as appealing wrongfully denied claims. Most have never before had to navigate the public benefits system, and without legal assistance, far too many will not obtain their rightful benefits to ameliorate job loss, reduced hours and illness.

Statewide, advocates are reporting increased calls for domestic violence following the stay-at-home orders and school closures. Domestic violence advocates warn that at-risk partners and children can be cut off from support networks and isolated in abusive homes. With courts operating remotely, survivors need help securing protection orders. Civil legal aid attorneys are providing this urgent access to the justice system, helping survivors and their families get the protection they need.

We likely all know someone unable to pay their rent or mortgage, due to missed paychecks and strained household finances. Civil legal aid programs have already been inundated with requests for help from tenants and homeowners worried about how they will avoid eviction or foreclosure when they will be months behind on their payments. Without timely access to civil legal aid, a dispute with a lender or landlord can easily lead to homelessness.

The current crisis highlights how the justice gap is growing as a wave of needs are developing that will overwhelm our legal aid system. Even before the outbreak, just a quarter of low-income people in our state received the civil legal help they needed. And now, with so many more Wisconsinites in need, we must redouble our commitment to justice for all.

Substantial and sustained support for civil legal aid must be part of our government’s short- and long-term policy responses to COVID-19 at all levels. Emergency federal stimulus funding should be directed to boosting service capacity. The state should step up its own investment during any special legislative session called to address the crisis. City and county leaders should make similar investments.

We can see the needs now, and we know what’s coming. Wisconsin’s civil legal aid providers are on the front lines, helping our state meet the crisis head-on. Increased support will ensure that they can effectively help guide Wisconsin’s citizens through our recovery as well.

Marsha M. Mansfield is the director of LIFT Dane (Legal Interventions for Transforming Dane County).

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