Profound economic uncertainty makes NH Campaign for Legal Services even more essential

State’s civil legal aid programs are facing a surge in need

Nhcls Logo CopyThe Covid-19 crisis has brought out the best in our communities: Neighbors running errands for seniors, crafting protective equipment for our medical providers and finding new ways to maintain the vital human connections that sustain us during the darkest times.

But despite quick and proactive measures by our state leaders, the future holds profound economic uncertainty for so many Granite Staters. Temporary increases in unemployment benefits, expanded access to food stamps and moratoriums on evictions and foreclosures provide critical help now, but they won’t be enough to protect our neighbors who have lost wages or jobs.

The civil legal aid programs at New Hampshire Legal Assistance and the Legal Advice & Referral Center are preparing for a surge in need for service that may exceed what they experienced during any previous downturn in the economy, even the Great Recession.

NHLA and LARC clients will face impossible, sometimes dangerous, decisions: Do they pay for food, or their rent? Stay with an abuser or risk homelessness? Forego medication to keep the heat on?

Each of these dilemmas has a potential civil legal remedy. But unlike in criminal court, where people who can’t afford an attorney are provided one by the state’s public defender program, people who cannot afford to pay for an attorney for a civil case do not have the guaranteed right to one – despite the complex nature of civil cases such as evictions, foreclosures, denial of benefits or divorce after domestic violence.

Civil legal aid protects people’s most basic living needs, by leveling the playing field when assistance is wrongly delayed or denied.

We serve on the Leadership Council of the NH Campaign for Legal Services, founded in 2010 to raise awareness and support for these critical and often overlooked programs. We believe legal aid will be a crucial piece of the services our communities need as we weather this storm:

  • Public benefits: Unemployment insurance claims are at an all-time high. As laid-off workers begin accessing other public benefits like food stamps and Medicaid, overloaded systems will make processing errors, rejecting eligible families. Legal aid provides expert assistance with appeals of denial of benefits.
  • Rent and mortgage concerns: Tenants and property owners should still pay their rent and mortgages during the moratorium on evictions and foreclosures. Those who can’t will face eviction and foreclosure once the moratorium is lifted. Some banks and landlords will negotiate manageable payment plans. Others will move to evict or foreclosure, leaving individuals and families at risk of chronic homelessness. Legal aid is ready to help tenants and homeowners understand and navigate the legal process.
  • Domestic violence: New Hampshire police departments are already seeing spikes in domestic violence calls. Survivors will continue to need representation and advice to stay safe and protect their children. Legal aid helps survivors divorce their abusers and secure child support and compensation for medical bills so they can heal and restart their lives in safety.
  • Consumer debt worries: Some households will fall behind on payments to credit cards and other lenders. Legal aid can help them protect their consumer rights.
  • Special education: School districts have implemented remote learning on short notice, and some are struggling to provide special education services. Legal aid will help students and their families access compensatory special education after the Covid-19 crisis abates.

Now more than ever, our neighbors will need legal advice, and now, more than ever, they will not be able to afford hiring an attorney.

We write to ask you, if you are able, please consider supporting legal aid through the NH Campaign for Legal Services, so your neighbors can protect their housing, put food on the table, and stay safe from domestic abuse.

We’ve seen how strong our state is when we all pull together. You can give securely at nh-cls.org/you-can-help.

If you or someone you know is struggling with a civil legal issue, consult the many resources available free to the public at nhlegalaid.org. If you need more advice, you can also fill out the online application there.

This article was written by Ovide Lamontagne of Manchester, chair of the Campaign Leadership Council, with Erica Bodwell of Concord; William L. Chapman of Concord; Michael Delaney of Manchester; Rachel Goldwasser of Concord Margaret Goodlander of Portsmouth; David Gottesman of Nashua; Courtney Herz of Hopkinton; Megan Hilson of Exeter; Martha Van Oot of Portsmouth; and Danette Wineberg of Exeter.

Categories: Law, Opinion

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