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Opinion >  Guest Opinion

Francis Adewale and Debra Stephens: Civil legal aid is even more important today

By Francis Adewale and Debra Stephens

By Francis Adewale and Debra Stephens

The unprecedented challenges of the past year require an unprecedented response from us all. In the justice system, we are reckoning with the impacts of inequity and racism on marginalized people – now most harmed by the COVID-19 crisis. To protect their rights and safety during the coming waves of adversity driven by the pandemic, we must bolster one of our most effective frontline responses: civil legal aid.

As a Justice of the Washington state Supreme Court and a city of Spokane public defender, we know firsthand the critical role civil legal aid providers play in helping our courts ensure fair and meaningful access to justice, in normal times and especially amid this crisis.

Now they are on the front lines of many emergency efforts, including helping people secure critically needed unemployment insurance, protecting the safety of people at risk of increased domestic violence, and – perhaps most urgently – preventing a surge in homelessness.

Over the past year, civil legal aid attorneys have worked directly with local courts, including the Spokane County Superior Court, to help design and implement new, innovative COVID-19 response projects such as the Eviction Resolution Program (ERP).

This ERP program, now underway as a pilot in Spokane and five other counties, seeks to stop evictions before they come to court. Tenants and landlords enter a dispute resolution process in which qualifying tenants can receive rental assistance if they’ve fallen behind on rent and, crucially, be matched with a pro bono attorney if they need legal assistance or protection.

It’s a win-win-win program, offering housing security for tenants, solutions to overdue payments for landlords, and early resolutions to cases for a court system that may soon be overwhelmed by the anticipated wave of evictions once the state’s moratorium is lifted. The ERP is an example of how civil legal aid programs make our justice system more effective and more just.

Unlike in criminal cases, in which people are represented by a public defender if they need one, those in civil court don’t generally have the right to an attorney. Due to COVID-19, many people across our state are dealing with unanticipated legal issues jeopardizing their income, safety, housing, and much more, often for the first time.

These legal problems can be difficult to resolve and, if unaddressed, can drag people deeper into poverty. And they disproportionately harm Black and Indigenous people, immigrants, and others least protected by our justice system and now most impacted by the COVID-19 crisis.

Connecting with a civil legal aid program often makes all the difference for individuals seeking greater justice in our society. Free professional advice and representation, provided by staff and private attorneys volunteering their time, helps low-income people stay housed, remain safe from abuse, receive their rightful benefits, and much more.

Local legal aid programs were already delivering these essential services before the pandemic. For example, the connections between Spokane Community Court and legal aid attorneys have long helped people experiencing homelessness transition away from their legal issues and toward more stable housing. Spokane’s community court has become a model for jurisdictions throughout the country.

And recent articles in this paper have demonstrated the increased urgency of civil legal aid in response to the pandemic. Jefferson Coulter at the Spokane office of the Northwest Justice Project, Julie Griffith at the Spokane County Bar Association and Juliana Repp at the Spokane Unemployment Law Project have each shared compelling stories of the COVID-19 legal crises their clients are experiencing, including imminent threats to their housing and income.

We should not be surprised to find civil legal aid on the front lines of this crisis. Thankfully, state leaders in the judicial, executive and legislative branches have supported key emergency investments, through the Washington state Office of Civil Legal Aid, that have helped expand services like the Eviction Resolution Program, to ensure essential lifelines are available to people in need in the Spokane area. If you, or someone you know, needs help with a civil legal issue, call the CLEAR hotline at (888) 201-1014.

The reality of the current crisis is that, unfortunately, more assistance will be necessary, as the fallout from the pandemic unfolds and our region works to recover.

The Legislature can do its part by continuing funding for these front-line COVID response services. And we can all do our part by supporting civil legal aid.

Civil legal aid is a highly valuable tool for fixing some of the damage of COVID-19. It addresses critical legal problems, connects people with resources, and builds stronger communities. We need to continue to make it work for the most vulnerable among us.

Debra Stephens, a longtime resident of the Spokane Valley, is a Justice of the Washington Supreme Court and served as Washington’s 57th Chief Justice.

Francis Adewale is a public defender for the ity of Spokane and Chair of the Washington state Supreme Court’s Access to Justice Board.

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