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Pro-bono legal service requests spike during COVID

Suzanne Saucier serves as the managing attorney at the Smoky Mountains office for Legal Aid of North Carolina. Suzanne Saucier serves as the managing attorney at the Smoky Mountains office for Legal Aid of North Carolina.

As people continue to struggle through the COVID-19 pandemic, the demand for pro-bono legal services has spiked, putting more demand on nonprofit legal organizations like Pisgah Legal Services and Legal Aid.

Pisgah Legal Services, which opened an office in Highlands/Cashiers last year, and Legal Aid, which has had an office in Sylva for decades, have seen a hefty increase in call volumes from people needing free legal representation in civil matters. And more people out of work means more people are eligible for the free services.

“So many low-income people are eligible for our services in Western North Carolina — well over 200,000 people were eligible last year and last year we helped 22,000 people, which is a record. So already we’re not able to meet the need,” said Jim Barrett, executive director of Pisgah Legal Services. “And in this pandemic, a lot of people have fallen into poverty and have recently become eligible for services, and all this happened really suddenly.”

The nonprofits are able to help people with a host of civil legal matters, but the vast majority of the work during the pandemic has been surrounding domestic violence, housing, Social Security benefits, unemployment claims, unfair debt collections and health coverage.

“We’re helping people stabilize and secure affordable housing, helping them access affordable health insurance to get the health care they need, helping people avoid domestic violence and child abuse or escape from it, and we’re helping people increase their income to come out of poverty,” Barrett said. “In the pandemic, the emphasis has shifted to unemployment and housing issues. We’re seeing more situations where people are losing income and needing health insurance coverage because they’ve lost a job.”

Suzanne Saucier, the managing attorney of the Smoky Mountains Legal Aid office based in Sylva, has worked for the organization since 2010. She interned at the Sylva office in the summer of 2009 and loved it so much she decided to come back to the area after she graduated law school to continue her work with the nonprofit. 

“Our mission is basically to bring legal justice to those who can’t afford it,” she said. “When you think of providing legal services for people who can’t afford an attorney, I think most people think of public defenders, but that’s on the criminal side of the law. We offer services on the civil side of the law.”

While Saucier has eight attorneys, three paralegals and one healthcare navigator who work in this area, she also has the expertise of the statewide Legal Aid network.

“Having those resources statewide and being able to make a big impact for everyone in North Carolina because of our reach across the state — that’s something that’s been such a plus during all this,” she said.

Staying connected to lawyers in other parts of North Carolina and staying informed has been critical during the pandemic as COVID-19 regulations and protocols seem to be changing daily. 

Barrett said Pisgah Legal is averaging more than 1,000 calls a day — sometimes more than 1,400 calls a day — from people seeking advice. About 30 percent of those calls are from people who can be referred to Pisgah’s Mountain Area Volunteer Lawyer program (MAVL). About 300 attorneys volunteer to assist Pisgah Legal clients today. In 2017 alone, WNC attorneys donated 3,176 hours, a value of $794,083.

 

Domestic violence

Pisgah and Legal Aid have both seen a major increase in domestic violence cases across the region. With more people out of work and isolated together at home, emotional and mental stress is high, which has led to an increase in domestic violence incidents. Even though much of the court system hasn’t been operating during the pandemic, domestic violence cases are still being heard.

“We’re very fortunate in our part of the state none of our agencies had to shut down so we’ve worked closely with them through the pandemic as they continue to provide services,” Saucier said. “And even when the courts shut down these kinds of cases continued.”

Even though the cases are still being heard, Barrett said court system delays have still been an issue because of social distancing requirements and cases having to be spread out.

“The courts are scheduling things farther out and farther apart, and I think the results of that are going to be all over the place. In some cases it might have made people quit litigating and start talking to each other and in other cases justice has been delayed for people,” Barrett said. “In many cases justice wasn’t possible because the money for relief hasn’t come yet.”

 

Tenant/landlord rights

Legal Aid and Pisgah Legal have worked on more eviction cases in the last year as more people are unable to pay rent. Temporary regulations during the pandemic gives renters some leeway when it comes to paying their rent. However, landlords can still evict a tenant for reasons not associated with COVID-19. Eviction cases are also still being heard in court. 

“We’re trying to help people have a safe home. There may be conditions the landlord is not fixing in the home or fair housing discrimination cases,” Saucier said. “We’re trying to keep families in a physically and emotionally safe environment so we work on domestic violence cases as well.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention plans to extend the eviction moratorium through March 31. Gov. Roy Cooper has already extended his state eviction order to March 31, assuring the CDC order still applies in N.C.

Saucier said it’s important for tenants to understand the moratorium is not a blanket moratorium — landlords can still go through the eviction process for certain reasons. She encourages tenants to download the Tenant Declaration form on the Legal Aid website to provide a copy to their landlord. 

“Know that your landlord can’t change your locks or turn off your electricity without going through the court process,” Saucier said. “Since it’s not a total moratorium, landlords have gotten smart about ways to get around these things.”

On the other side of that, Barrett said other landlords have been working with their tenants, understanding the financial struggles people are going through right now even though they may be struggling to pay their own mortgages on rentals. 

A recent research study that came out of Duke University showed the eviction moratorium is reducing incidents of COVID — information lawyers have been able to use in court as one argument for keeping their client in their home. There are plenty of other reasons though, including the scarcity of long-term rental properties in WNC. 

“Even when we’re not talking about COVID, moving is hard for everyone whether you have resources or not and when you don’t have resources it’s that much more difficult,” Saucier said. “Imagine having a child doing remote learning and then trying to move and get all that set back up. Not to mention uprooting a family from their home can be traumatic.”

 

Foreclosures coming

Then there’s the foreboding issue of home foreclosures — something Barrett and Saucier say is their main concern moving into 2021. 

“I’m dreading the flood of foreclosures I see coming,” Saucier said. “There are some protections in place and mortgage companies are willing to work with people on forbearances right now, but it’s only delaying the inevitable. Banks have held off on those, but when they get the green light I  think across the state we’re going to see foreclosures happening.”

Once the COVID regulations are lifted, homeowners will be no better off than they were when the pandemic hit and will only be further behind on their payments.

“We’ve been urging people to pay their rent or mortgage if they can and as much as they can because the more they get behind, the more likely they are to be displaced when the moratorium ends,” Barrett said. “You have to make a good faith effort to pay what you can and that’s what’s been difficult about our work — helping people find the assistance they need to do that.”

He added that many people have already spent their savings during this economic downturn and some have even had to dip into their retirement to stay afloat. When that happens, Barrett said he definitely worries about more foreclosures happening in 2021. 

“We’re just waiting for that other shoe to drop,” he said. “We are wondering how patient are the banks going to be?”

With the federally insured loans, Barrett said the government keeps extending the deadline for people to extend their mortgage terms into the future so they don’t get behind. Mortgage holders that aren’t federally insured aren’t compelled to renegotiate terms with people, and Barrett said he’s heard some of those lenders are already starting foreclosure proceedings. 

 

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Pisgah Legal Volunteer Attorney Justin Sigmon, right, helps client, Dennis, fill out legal paperwork.

 

Finding assistance

Pisgah Legal and Legal Aid are both encouraging WNC residents to check their websites regularly for updates to COVID-related legal issues and useful forms people may need. 

Legal Aid services all seven counties west of Asheville while Pisgah Level Services serves Jackson and Macon counties in addition to counties east of Asheville. Pisgah recently opened an office on the Plateau to serve Highlands-Cashiers, though lawyers have been working remotely from home during the pandemic. 

Both organizations also have specific programs that focus on the rights of seniors — helping with estate issues, Social Security and/or unemployment benefits and elder abuse cases. Legal Aid also works in the tribal courts on the Qualla Boundary handling adoptions and parents custody cases. 

The nonprofit does not offer sliding scale services — only free services for those who meet the poverty level requirements, although there are exemptions when it comes to elderly and domestic violence cases. 

Barrett said Pisgah has been fortunate to receive some additional funding from various sources to help with specific issues during COVID, including CARES Act funding to hire a lawyer to work on elder law issues and a grant from Dogwood Health Trust to hire someone to work on housing issues and to help people sign up for the Affordable Care Act, which is having an extended enrollment period. 

Pisgah Legal doesn’t receive any state funding, something that still boggles Barrett. 

“We get more funding from Buncombe County than we do from the state. The General Assembly leadership doesn’t put a priority on it. I don’t know if they don’t know how important of a safety net we are or they’re just indifferent,” he said. “We used to get $7 million a year, but since the recession it’s just kept going down. We’ve had to raise money from private sources and donations, but you never know how long that’s going to last.”

Legal Aid, on the other hand, received federal funding in addition to state funding and private donations/grants. Legal Aid’s entire state budget is about $28 million.

If you are looking for resources, the best first call to make is 211. That line can connect you with food, heating and other assistance through government agencies and nonprofits. 

 

Legal assistance

If you can’t afford a lawyer and have questions about your rights as a tenant or landlord, ACA health care coverage, unemployment or Social Security benefits, not receiving your stimulus checks, unpaid utilities or mortgages or any other COVID-19 related matters, you might qualify for free legal representation through Pisgah Legal Services or Legal Aid. Both organizations serve people in the western counties. 

• Pisgah Legal Services — Serves Macon and Jackson counties. Call 828.210.3404 or visit www.pisgahlegal.org.

• Legal Aid of NC — Serving all counties west of Buncombe. Call 855.733.3711 or visit www.legalaidnc.org

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