As the nation struggles to manage the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, ABA President Patricia Lee Refo has appealed to Congress to urge the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to immediately activate the ABA’s Disaster Legal Services (DLS) program nationwide so it can help meet the legal needs of low-income Americans devastated by the emergency.
“Although DLS is a highly cost-effective program that helps provide essential pro bono legal services to disaster survivors at minimal cost, FEMA has not yet activated and implemented the program in the many states and territories that have requested it,” Refo said in a letter sent September 8 to the leaders of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security & Governmental Affairs and the House Committee on Transportation & Infrastructure.
Disasters strike poor and moderate-income Americans the hardest. It has been no different during this pandemic, and, as with other disasters, many of the problems striking the nation’s most vulnerable have been legal issues.
Once the President has declared a major disaster, the Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act both authorizes and obligates FEMA to provide free confidential legal assistance to low-income disaster survivors who do not have the resources to secure such services themselves. Starting with a Memorandum of Agreement in 1972, FEMA has partnered with the ABA Young Lawyers Division to be the exclusive coordinator of these pro bono legal services.
When DLS is requested following a major disaster declaration, FEMA provides a letter of intent authorizing initial funding of $5,000 to implement the program in a particular state or territory. The funds are then used to establish and publicize toll-free hotlines to provide the assistance.
As the COVID-19 pandemic spread, President Trump declared a nationwide emergency under the Stafford Act on March 13, 2020. As a result, all 50 states, the District of Columbia and four territories have been approved to receive federal disaster aid. But FEMA has not activated or funded DLS in any state or territory to help address legal needs arising from the pandemic.
Meanwhile these legal needs are proliferating, with historically high numbers of unemployment claims filed and a “tsunami” of evictions and foreclosures expected once the moratoria are lifted on these actions. The pandemic has also led to other legal problems, including a spike in domestic violence incidents, medical debt collections, family law issues, elder abuse, and many other issues.
FEMA’s activation of the DLS program and authorization of the initial $5,000 needed to start DLS in each state and territory “will make an enormous difference for many thousands of individuals who would not otherwise have access to legal assistance,” said Refo in her letter.
It is unclear why FEMA has not already authorized funding for DLS during COVID-19. But, Refo noted, if the delay is because of a perception that DLS funding would duplicate the supplemental funding received by the Legal Services Corporation (LSC) to provide emergency legal services in the CARES Act – the economic stimulus package signed into law March 27 – those concerns are misplaced. DLS and LSC are different legal assistance programs, with different eligibility thresholds, and both operated simultaneously in response to numerous previous disasters with no duplication of benefits. With the unmet legal need already so high and increasing, FEMA needs to activate DLS now to assist more low-income Americans suffering from this pandemic.