Civil legal aid is one of the most effective tools in the fight against poverty. That’s why it has broad bipartisan support from state legislators like us — and why, in this time of crisis, it is more important than ever.
Unlike in criminal cases, people in civil court do not have the right to an attorney. Civil legal aid programs provide cost-free advice and representation to renters and homeowners at risk of eviction and foreclosure, laid-off workers appealing wrongful denials of their unemployment benefits, survivors of domestic violence seeking protection orders, and many others.
These services have been an essential part of our state’s front-line response to COVID-19. With so many people struggling, including the vulnerable communities hit hardest by this crisis and those facing job losses or housing insecurity for the first time, legal assistance is a lifeline.
We see this in our districts, as staff and pro bono attorneys at the Clark County Volunteer Lawyers Program and the Vancouver office of the Northwest Justice Project work to ensure low-income people in Southwest Washington receive equal treatment from our legal system.
“Having professional advice and someone to argue for you in court is vital,” Clark County District Court Judge Chad Sleight told us. “Knowing the right forms and documents to file, how to schedule a court hearing, what the law is, and arguing the case in court are extremely difficult or next to impossible without qualified legal representation.”
Without that representation, low-income people with civil legal issues are likely to fall further into cycles of poverty. These issues tend to compound: the inability to resolve one, like access to benefits, can quickly create others, like unpaid bills, debt collection, or stress leading to abuse. A 2015 study found that the average low-income family in Washington faces more than nine civil legal problems each year.
But timely and effective civil legal assistance can prevent problems from piling up, help families stabilize and recover, and provide a path out of poverty. Resolving these problems also reduces the strain on other public resources, which is especially important amid the economic fallout of the pandemic. Mitigating the harm of this crisis on our communities and our state requires expanding civil legal assistance to as many people as we can.
Fortunately, bipartisan leaders were recently able to allocate more than $5 million in state and federal disaster response funding to increase legal services for people facing housing, employment, and family safety issues as a result of COVID-19.
That includes a grant to the CCVLP’s Housing Justice Project, which helps tenants and landlords resolve disputes, avoid eviction, and prevent homelessness. The program also received support from Clark County Community Services to provide more representation for clients with COVID-related employment issues.
We encourage anyone worried about the legal implications of falling behind on their rent, confused about the state eviction moratorium, or unable to secure their rightful unemployment or medical benefits to contact the program at 360-334-4007. Those with concerns about domestic violence, family safety, or guardianship can reach CCVLP at 360-695-5313.
The federal, state, and local emergency funding is a necessary first step, but we know that more must be done to meet the overwhelming need. We will fight to protect and expand the state’s investment in front-line services, and call on our counterparts in the Legislature, as well as at the federal and local levels, to continue our commitment to civil legal assistance for all who need it.
Our legal system only works if it works for everyone. Civil legal aid is essential for equal justice — and equal justice will be essential to our state’s recovery.
Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, represents the 18th District in the state Senate. Rep. Monica Stonier, D-Vancouver, represents the 49th District in the state House of Representatives.