Understanding How COVID-19 Widens the Justice Gap

Erica Melko, OCLC Communications Coordinator/Editor, Membership and Research /

The Improving Access to Civil Legal Justice through Public Libraries initiative has previously discussed the challenges facing those who fall into the justice gap—the divide between the need for civil legal aid and a person’s ability to access resources to meet the need. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated this gap and created a surge in civil legal issues for many people with rising unemployment, housing insecurity, medical debt, concerns of safety and domestic violence, and more. Low-income people in the U.S. are often most at risk for falling into the justice gap, and access to legal resources and information makes a crucial difference to people vulnerable to the heightened civil legal issues created by the COVID-19 pandemic.

As a central, trusted community resource, public libraries are well positioned to help reduce the justice gap by providing more access points to legal information and services, especially in times of crisis. This article highlights some of the civil legal issues that your community may be facing from the pandemic and provides some helpful starting points for how your library can connect patrons in need with information and support to help address their civil legal needs.

Why are public libraries a key community resource in times of crisis?

  • Libraries are central community institutions that are a familiar place to turn to for resources, including reliable internet access
  • Public libraries also have longer hours that offer more flexibility for people in need than organizations open only during business hours
  • Libraries are trusted by their communities
  • Access to justice depends on access to knowledge, and public libraries are important public access points

Start identifying local resources

As an information source for your community, you can get started by identifying resources that apply to your location. The law often varies depending on jurisdiction and whether it is federal, state, or local law. Most civil legal issues are governed by state and local laws. It is helpful, therefore, to look for legal aid and resources specific to your state as a starting point. In many states, the Bar Association or legal aid organization maintains a website with up-to-date legal information related to COVID-19 that are great places to begin. A collection of these COVID-19 resource links, organized by state, can be found here.

Civil legal issues on the rise

It is helpful to recognize the broad categories of civil legal issues that are on the rise because of the unique circumstances resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. You may want to start identifying resources to address any of the following issues:

Finances

  • Unemployment—In addition to the increased number of people filing unemployment claims, other issues can arise such as what steps to take if your unemployment claim has been denied or if health insurance coverage is lost due to unemployment.
  • Consumer debt issues can be compounded as unemployment rises and emergency household reserves are quickly depleted.

Housing—evictions and foreclosures

With rising unemployment and healthcare costs as a result of the pandemic, many people are experiencing housing insecurity. Some jurisdictions have issued a stay on evictions and/or foreclosures, but this may vary depending on your location. Some other potential issues to be aware of related to housing:

  • Illegal lockouts—This is when a landlord makes changes that prevent a tenant from entering their residence with no prior notice, including changing locks, security codes, access gates, and other similar measures.
  • Illegal utility shut-offs—Similar to lockouts, this occurs when someone cuts off essential services with no prior notice in an attempt force a tenant out, including water, electricity, gas, and possibly internet depending on the area.

Family issues

  • Custody—A parent could potentially struggle to pay child support due to unemployment or other financial barriers caused by the pandemic.
  • Visitation orders—A safety or health issue could interfere with visitation schedules during lockdowns. Or, what if one parent won’t comply with current visitation orders? Issues with finances, travel, health, and more could all be impacted by the pandemic that could interfere with pre-pandemic custody or visitation agreements.
  • Divorce—Court proceedings were put on hold during early lockdown periods creating significant caseload backlog and delays. Although some courts have tried virtual hearings, this requires a stable internet connection or significant data plan that many low-income people do not have access to.

Safety

Stay-at-home orders made living conditions much more dangerous for people experiencing domestic violence.

  • Emergency services are continuing regardless of stay-at-home orders, including emergency hearings in courts.
  • It can be valuable to have a list readily available of resources in your community to support people experiencing domestic violence, especially in the heightened situation created by the pandemic.

Health

  • Medical debt—Medical debt is often considered different from many other types of consumer debt as it is often resulting from sudden, unexpected injury or illness. With unemployment rising amid a global health crisis, civil legal issues involving medical debt are on the rise.
  • Advanced directives and estate planning—These are legal documents that spell out decisions about end-of-life care ahead of time.

Legal information vs. legal advice

Although public libraries can be an important resource in closing the justice gap, it is important that public library staff have a clear understanding of the distinction between legal information and legal advice (see video) to avoid the unauthorized practice of law. One way to think about this distinction is to position yourself as expert on finding information, and not an expert on the information itself. A few more ways to think about the distinction discussed in the video:

  • Addressing the question but not always answering the question
  • Providing the resource, not the specific statute, form, or process
  • Guiding to instructions for filling out forms, but not choosing the forms or helping to fill out the forms for your patron

Don't go it alone: Civil legal aid partners

Civil legal information is a very specialized area of knowledge, and the prospect of being a distressed patron’s first-stop resource for civil legal information can seem daunting. But you don’t have to do this on your own. Finding the right community partner experienced in specialized knowledge and resources—such as law libraries, legal aid organizations, or even nearby university law programs or your local Bar Association—to help identify pressing civil legal needs in your community.

  • Legal Aid—Legal Services Corporation (LSC)—an independent nonprofit that provides financial support for civil legal aid to low-income Americans—offers an interactive map where you can search for legal aid in your area.
  • Public law libraries—Law libraries are specialized institutions of knowledge and collections that can provide people with information, forms, and legal aid references to help people with their civil legal questions. Search your area to find a public law library near you to refer patrons to with civil legal issues or to help you understand more complex questions from patrons. If you have trouble finding a public law library in your area, this resource can help.

A supportive partnership with experienced organizations can provide patrons with additional access points to resources that can be a step in the right direction.

More resources and information

Some of the information in this article was presented in a free WebJunction webinar in June on “Libraries Prepare to Answer Civil Legal Questions in Times of Crisis.” You can find a list of helpful resources on the webinar page. Visit oc.lc/legal-justice to learn more about how your library can create more access points to civil legal justice for your community, to enroll in the new course series Creating Pathways to Civil Legal Justice, and to explore more on WebJunction and Legal Service Corporation’s training initiative Improving Access to Civil Legal through Public Libraries.