By Leslie E. John, partner at Ballard Spahr LLP, and President of the Philadelphia Bar Foundation.
The coronavirus pandemic has altered the state of the world, plunging all of us into uncertain and unprecedented times. The unfolding crisis reveals very clearly what the Bar Foundation and its donors have long understood – that our most vulnerable community members need our help. Recognizing the vital importance of civil legal aid, especially at a time like this, in mid-April, the Philadelphia Bar Foundation released more than a quarter-million dollars in emergency grants to civil legal aid nonprofits. These funds will help alleviate some of the unexpected economic pressure our nonprofit partners are facing and provide support for their future needs. Most of our nonprofit partners provide direct services to individuals, helping them secure housing, food, education, healthcare assistance, protection from abuse, and more. Others bring vital attention to issues made more urgent by the pandemic. We've heard from the agencies that these funds will be used to:
- Continue to address systemic work, like medical rationing and discriminatory hospital visitation policies during this time.
- Improve technology infrastructure to allow staff members to continue their remote work safely and efficiently.
- Create easily accessible video tutorials on how individuals can file for pardons and other motions at home.
The entire Philadelphia civil legal aid community is working nonstop to ensure that individuals, families, and communities have access to necessary information, services, and resources needed during this stressful time. Their efforts include:
- Providing instructions on how to obtain a Protection from Abuse Order (a restraining order) while the courts are closed from Women Against Abuse, Philadelphia Legal Assistance, Women's Law Project, and SeniorLAW Center.
- Drafting a guide of Pennsylvania-specific resources for helping students experiencing homelessness and students in the foster care system to adjust during the COVID-19 outbreak from Education Law Center and Juvenile Law Center in collaboration with The Field Center for Children's Policy, Practice & Research, The Hope Center, and Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children.
- Delivering needed information on evictions and other housing issues from PhillyTenant.org, a collaborative project by AIDS Law Project, Community Legal Services, HELP: MLP, Legal Clinic for the Disabled, Philadelphia Legal Assistance, Philly VIP, Regional Housing Legal Services, SeniorLAW Center, and Tenant Union Representative Network.
- Filing class action lawsuits on behalf of those detained arguing that conditions in some jails across the commonwealth increase the likelihood that people detained there will contract COVID-19. One lawsuit was filed by the ACLU of Pennsylvania, Abolitionist Law Center, Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project, and the law firm Dechert LLP. A second lawsuit was filed by the ACLU of Pennsylvania, the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project, the law firm Kairsy, Rudovsky, Messing, Feinberg, and Lin LLP, and the law firm Dechert LLP.
In addition to providing financial support, the Bar Foundation takes seriously its obligation to tell the stories of the unfolding programs, services, advocacy, and pandemic-related activities of Philadelphia's public interest community. A resource page for civil legal aid services can be found on our website and contains helpful materials for the public as well as information about organizations' intake and operations.
The legal aid community is anticipating an immense surge in the need for legal services once offices and courts reopen. The backlog is building in Philadelphia courts, especially concerning family law, housing, and unemployment matters. The disruption in the U.S. created by the coronavirus pandemic is poised to have a significant and negative impact on the nonprofit sector in Philadelphia and across the state.
The Bar Foundation leadership anticipates that our organization, which has been serving Philadelphians since 1964, will not be immune from the effects of the downturn, and we have taken immediate action to reduce expenses. We look to the steadfast support of our loyal donors to help us secure the financial future of this organization. We rely on the generosity of the Philadelphia legal community to sustain our grantmaking, which more important now than it ever was. Please make a donation on our website to provide support during this crisis.
We hope you and your loved ones are staying safe and healthy. I look forward to a time when we can all see each other again in person.