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Pro Bono Center Reflects on a Year of Remote Service

March 25, 2021

By Matt Stephen

Pro Bono StaffThe Pro Bono Center quickly transformed last March when COVID-19 changed the fabric of legal services and life itself. March 16, 2021 marked one year of remote legal services for the D.C. Bar Pro Bono Center. The shift introduced some temporary changes and some changes that may become permanent, but the Center’s commitment to D.C. residents only grew in the intervening year. The Center has always helped those in need, but when inequalities were intensified by a global health crisis, it responded to help those in an even greater time of need.

The Center’s Advice & Referral Clinic (A&R), which brought volunteer attorneys to help D.C. residents in Anacostia and Shaw on the second Saturday of every month since 1997, was suspended when the public health crisis began. Even before the pandemic, there was an access to justice crisis; one in six D.C. residents lived in poverty. Because free legal services are vital to our community, in-person services like A&R were replaced with phone lines.  At the start of the pandemic, Pro Bono Center staff answered the calls, before figuring out how to connect callers with pro bono attorneys remotely as well. The change has required the Center’s staff to innovate as the year has gone on. Although the moratoriums on eviction and debt collection actions have meant that fewer D.C. residents sought legal services during the pandemic, 310 A&R clients still needed and received brief legal advice and information over the phone.

The Center’s court-based resource centers also transitioned to remote service. The Consumer Law Resource Center has helped 373 clients with matters like debt collection and small claims, an increase over the number served last year. The Landlord Tenant Resource Center (LTRC) also transitioned to remote service quickly. According to recent data from the U.S. Census Bureau, more than 15% of D.C. adults are behind in rent and nearly 17% of all D.C. adults doubt that they can pay next month’s rent. Between the LTRC and the new Landlord Tenant Legal Assistance Network (LTLAN) partnership that provides a central intake for D.C. residents seeking help with housing matters, 1,880 tenants and small landlords have received information, advice, and answers to their questions about eviction, housing conditions, or pandemic-related changes in the law.

The Center has maintained the services low-income D.C. residents rely on, expanded programs, and formed new partnerships, all from the home offices of staff and volunteers. Along with LTLAN, the Center launched the Family Law Assistance Network (FLAN) with other D.C.-area organizations. FLAN has handled the matters of pro se litigants in the D.C. Superior Court’s Family Court—an area of urgent need—all without stepping foot in an office. The network has served an impressive 772 families with urgent custody, child support, and divorce matters since it opened its virtual doors on March 27, 2020.

When it became clear that the pandemic would cause an economic downturn, the Nonprofit & Small Business Legal Assistance Programs (NPSB) adapted to the growing need for legal information and advice in employment law, commercial lease abatements, federal and local financial assistance, how to reopen safely, and much more. Pro Bono Center staff in partnership with law firms and attorney volunteers met the need by serving an unprecedented number of organizations that keep District neighborhoods vibrant and serve residents. Since March 16, 2020, NPSB has served more than 3,700 nonprofits and small, local businesses.

In the last year, the Center trained 566 lawyers through new virtual formats and waived registration fees to prepare for the coming surge of requests for legal help when the federal and local moratoriums end. Before the pandemic, more than 75% of D.C. residents appearing in court did so without a lawyer, and almost all of those unrepresented litigants were people of color. The Pro Bono Center’s efforts to increase access to justice for D.C. residents also increase racial equity.

Thanks to the Center’s staff, volunteers, and donors, multiple vaccines, signs of economic recovery, federal COVID-19 relief, and more, there’s reason to be optimistic. For 43 years, the Center has adapted and responded to D.C. residents and their needs. Although the already great need for pro bono legal help continues to increase, the Center’s swift and innovative response to COVID-19 is evidence of its determination to meet the needs of D.C. residents living on low-incomes.

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