By Scott Merrill
The New Hampshire Campaign for Legal Services held a “Lunch With Legal Services” event on July 16th to provide updates on a variety of interrelated issues and concerns faced by those around the Granite State in need of legal advice.
The meeting, attended by Attorney General Gordon MacDonald, and over 80 stakeholders in the state, was a chance for the legal services community to provide updates and strategies as they confront a host of challenges during the pandemic.
While the word tsunami has been a popular choice to describe the expected surge in evictions and domestic violence, as well as the need for unemployment benefit assistance, housing attorney Elliot Berry believes a more apt metaphor is of a hurricane.
“What I feel like right now is that we’re in Miami and we’re looking at the headwinds,” Berry said, explaining that he expects evictions to begin “piling up” over the coming month.
The moratorium on evictions for housing and multi-family rentals in buildings that have federally backed mortgages expires July 25th. Landlords seeking to evict a tenant for non-payment are required to provide a 30-day notice.
“And what that means for all of you who want to get involved,” Berry said, “is that right around Labor Day those cases are going to start ending up in court and that’s when the demand will be extraordinary.”
“I can tell you that the community action programs that are administering the governor’s housing relief fund are absolutely overwhelmed with financial assistance to pay back rent. As of now they’re looking at 3000 applications over the past two weeks.”
He continued: “No matter what the problems families face today, and they’re many, if you don’t have a home to stay in then it is very hard to deal with other issues. Substance abuse, family violence. You can’t begin to address these issues if you don’t have shelter.”
The ‘Essence’ of Legal Services
Attorney General MacDonald spoke briefly about the importance of legal services as well as his own experiences as a pro bono attorney. He praised the work of legal services attorneys around the state and reminded them of the importance of being involved with the work of the Campaign.
“Everyone who’s watched Law and Order or other cop shows knows that it is an inherent part of our constitution that those who are criminally accused have legal representation. But in the civil world there is no such analogue, even though an individual’s rights at issue are so important,” McDonald said. “Providing that safety and security of young families, of keeping a roof over your head, keeping access to health care and vital benefits, that is truly the essence of this cause.”
MacDonald has been involved in legal services work throughout his career as a private lawyer, as a pro bono attorney for the Bar Association’s Domestic Violence Program, and as a leader of the NH Campaign for Legal Services.
“I can tell you that of all the causes and undertakings I’ve been privileged to be a part of as a lawyer, none has been more satisfying than this, both representing clients as a pro bono attorney and working on behalf of the fine organizations that the Campaign for Legal Services supports,” he said. “One of the things that is really concerning to me are the potential victims of domestic violence that we do not know, potential victims of child abuse that we do not know, all underscoring the importance of this very important cause.”
Domestic and Sexual Violence
According to Erin Jasina, Domestic Violence Project Advocacy Director for New Hampshire Legal Assistance, referrals for protective orders, and other cases, have been climbing after a decrease during the stay at home orders.
“Now that things have opened up people are able to access court houses and to access crisis centers more easily,” Jasina said. “We’re seeing referrals come in steadily and we’re back up to double digits per month in just protective order cases. That’s true statewide for numbers in the court.”
Approximately 1.3 million women are physically assaulted by an intimate partner in the U.S. every year. Every day, three women die because of domestic violence.
“We’re getting to the storm,” Jasina said. “We expected referrals would be down during lock down because people weren’t able to access services at courthouse and because in some cases they were locked inside with their abusers.”
In January, according to Jasina, the number of domestic violence and stalking petitions was 301. In April that number dropped to 222. The numbers for June climbed to 284.
“We’re definitely seeing the increase of need for victims needing protections and victims being able to access those protections across the board on a statewide level,” Jasina said. “We anticipate there will be a significant need going forward.”
Community advocacy agencies, such as the NH Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, NHLA, and private attorneys, have been working closely with the courts to the meet the needs of victims, according to Jasina. One of the ways this is happening, she said, is through a partnership between crisis centers and the Strafford County Family Justice Center, where people can file domestic violence and stalking petitions electronically.
“This is different than the e-filing system because it allows victims to access crisis center services and they can submit domestic violence petitions through email to the court. Then the courts work with the victim to go through the process so they do not compromise health filing in person,” Jasina said. “We’re excited that this is an option for victims and survivors. We’ve been working with the 13 crisis centers in the state, the court has been fantastic and while it was meant and intended to help during the pandemic, we hope this will continue beyond.”
Interrelated Challenges Brings Cooperation
One of themes that emerged during the meeting of legal services providers and advocates is the need for cooperation to confront the many interrelated challenges, many of which existed before the pandemic.
“Before this incredible crisis hit there were 30,000 tenant households where tenants were paying over half of income for rent,” Berry said. “Think about that. When you’re paying over half of your income for rent that means one unexpected expense and all-of-a-sudden you’re behind on rent with no reasonable ability to get caught up.”
Breckie Hayes-Snow, Executive Director of Legal Advice and Referral Center (LARC), reported the number of calls to LARC’s hotline has increased by 30 percent since the beginning of June for telephone calls and 60 percent for online applications.
“In 2019 we had 8100 applications,” Hayes-Snow said. “If we continue in this way we will have over 13,000 over next twelve months. What we’re already seeing is the leading edge of the hurricane that Eliot was talking about.”
The increases described by Hayes-Snow involves needs for the client community as well as an increase in the client community itself.
“All of our clients are living below 200 percent of the federal policy guidelines amount and with so many people pushed out of employment even if they were just barely getting by, that community of people is exploding in our state, she said. “The work of the campaign becomes ever more important as our community faces these incredible struggles and I’m tremendously gratified to see many people willing to turn out to learn more about our services and the work our programs are doing.”
The biggest ways attorneys can help, in terms of contributing to the campaign, is to volunteer their time, Hayes-Snow explained.
“Representation is really what we can offer them,” she said, describing the anxiety and fear that clients face when confronting a system they no nothing about. “Representation makes a huge difference. Defending an eviction is a tremendous gift that you can give someone.”
Attorney Marta Hurgin, who formerly worked for the Public Defender’s office in NH for six years, has been working for NHLA and LARC for the past month. Her position was created to face the surge in cases described by Hayes-Snowe.
“I’m inspired by the caseload and the work attorneys are doing and I’m grateful to be here,” Hurgin said. “It may be my privilege speaking, even though I was a public defender, but I had no idea how little unemployment paid in N.H. and nationally.”
In N.H. the maximum for unemployment is 427 dollars a week, and Herta explained that most of her clients would only be getting between 200 and 300 dollars per week. With the 600-dollar benefits set to expire, she explained that most clients are going to see vastly diminished benefits.
“No one’s getting rich off unemployment. At it’s best it can help provide basic human dignity, and help people going through the world meet their basic human needs,” she said. “The legal aid attorneys are doing admirable work helping clients navigate the system.”
Sarah Mattson Dustin, Executive Director of New Hampshire Legal Assistance, said she has been reflecting on how the legal services community has been preparing for the current moment since “great recession.” She described some of the action being taken to meet the needs of clients, which includes the hiring of two paralegal advocates to represent clients in administrative proceedings and unemployment insurance appeals, as well as working with UNH law students from across the state’s schools.
“We’re really powering up additional capacity at a time when we need it the most and making the system as streamlined as possible by matching up the right cases with the right attorneys,” she said.