In the year 2020, the American legal system discovered its own strength, some weaknesses and the power of adaptability. As social distancing protocols caused courts throughout the country to close, the legal system — including courts, attorneys and legal aid providers — quickly began to restructure their processes in order to continue serving the public. With over 70 percent of civil and family cases involving at least one self represented party, these efforts have emphasized access to information for self represented individuals.
In 2018 the Oregon Law Foundation commissioned a report measuring the civil legal needs of low-income Oregonians. “Seventy-five percent of study participants reported experiencing at least one civil legal problem in the preceding 12 months with the average low-income household experiencing 5.4 civil legal problems over the last year.” When the pandemic hit, assistance with critical civil needs such as unemployment, discrimination and abuse became even more essential. Because of the work Deschutes County Access to Justice Committee has done over the past few years, the Committee was primed to adapt.
The new report from IAALS, PANDEMIC POSITIVES, aims to highlight real-life examples of improvements made within the judicial system through the use of virtual services. “IAALS reached out to organizations that have demonstrated a strong ability to adapt and have been innovative in how they provide services to self-represented litigants, both in-person and virtually.”
Among those organizations was the Deschutes County Access to Justice Committee. David Rosen, chair of the Committee and Jenny Pedersen, community librarian and committee member, provided details on Deschutes County’s successful transitions.
“The Deschutes County Access to Justice Committee, in partnership with area libraries, runs a weekly Lawyer in the Library program, where individuals can receive free 30-minute consultations with an attorney on a variety of areas of law. When pandemic restrictions went into place, the library’s Zoom subscription was used to continue the program remotely on the same evening it was previously offered in person.” (P3)
As organizations face staffing restrictions and limitations, partnerships supporting the needs of legal service providers and self-represented litigants that they help, have become a vital part of the solution.
“When the pandemic hit, it was very clear that there was going to be an uptick in the need for particular areas of law such as employment, landlord-tenant and abuse prevention. Moreover, it was further clear that this need would disproportionately impact low-income Oregonians.
Very early on, our Committee coordinated with the local Circuit Court to ensure that information about the Court and the type of cases being heard was made publicly available. Legal Aid provided vital COVID-related legal resources, which the Committee pushed out to the Community. The Committee felt that the gap in accurate information concerning the courts and changing laws was the first step in addressing the Access to Justice gap furthered by COVID. The next step was to get our Lawyer in the Library program up and running over Zoom — and for individuals who did not have access to Zoom, by telephone.
Because of our partnership with the Deschutes County Public Library and the extraordinary efforts of Jenny Pedersen, we were able to seamlessly transition our program onto Zoom, and along with it our attorney volunteers. The Library worked quickly to get all of our forms online so that both attorneys and participants had immediate access. The work by the Committee and the attorney volunteers, was a great example of the legal community coming together, acting quickly and ensuring folks had a place to go to get their legal questions addressed,” said Rosen.
By answering challenges with lasting solutions — the American Legal System is building a stronger and more adaptable system, and providing a model for constructive change.