A call away: Legal help for tough times more important than ever

With recent job losses, a global pandemic and a shaky economy, many low-income residents need legal help more than ever.

Based on data from previous recessions, the most significant legal issues likely to surface under the current conditions will be unemployment and housing issues, including evictions, according to a fact sheet provided by the regional Legal Aid office in Columbus.

But not all problems are financial. When job losses and shaky finances combine, it raises levels of anxiety and uncertainty to the point where family violence and emotional crises escalate, Legal Aid officials said.

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Officials at Legal Aid won’t cite specific cases, calling it a matter of confidentiality between lawyers and clients. However, the organization does say economically insecure and vulnerable family members may become at risk of physical harm and emotional trauma without legal assistance.

Some who cannot afford their own lawyer might eventually decide that Legal Aid — District 11, which has more than 75 attorneys serving an eight-county area, is their only option. Headquartered in the Doug Otto United Way Center at 1531 13th St., the regional Legal Aid office serves residents of Bartholomew, Brown, Decatur, Jackson, Jennings, Johnson, Rush and Shelby counties.

The free provider of legal services offers advice clinics and counseling on civic matters. And if more assistance is needed, the organization may be able to arrange pro bono personal representation, Legal Aid paralegal Kashmira Mehta said.

When a resident qualifies for assistance from Legal Aid, that person is referred to one of the volunteer attorneys, Mehta said. Due to the COVID-19 situation, most information exchanged between attorney and client is still being done over the phone, she said.

Although some families may already be financially struggling, it’s anticipated many will likely wait until this fall before seeking legal help. That’s largely due to a moratorium on evictions that began in March and lasted through mid-August, along with a $600-a-week additional unemployment benefit provided each week that also ended last month.

A few weeks after the moratorium on rental evictions elapsed in mid-August, the Trump administration issued a directive halting the eviction of certain renters though the end of this year.

However, the presidential directive applies only to those who demonstrate they have sought government assistance to make their rental payments, declare they are unable to pay rent because of COVID-19 hardships or affirm they are likely to become homeless if evicted.

While the order will provide temporary relief for millions, Diane Yentel, president and chief executive officer of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, warns that the presidential action only delays evictions, rather than preventing them.

“While an eviction moratorium is essential, it is a half-measure that extends a financial cliff for renters to fall off when the moratorium expires and back rent is owed,” Yentel said.

Although the $600-a-week additional unemployment payment also has expired, the Trump administration said they would provide an additional $300 a month on top of regular jobless benefits. But as more Americans request the benefit, the faster the limited amount of money will run out, according to a spokesman for the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

With changing conditions and restrictions, local courts will likely be increasingly called upon to resolve disputes between renters and landowners, Yentel said.

While the Indiana COVID-19 Rental Assistance Program can provide up to $500 a month in assistance for those directly impacted by the virus, the maximum amount available is $2,000. And even that amount will be denied if you are receiving additional housing assistance.

While the Indiana Supreme Court has launched a free program that allows landlords and tenants to negotiate a payment arrangement, participation is purely voluntary, and all parties must agree to any settlement.

Although it is true that workplaces in Indiana have the right to fire employees “at will” without providing reason to do so, it is still possible to file a wrongful termination under certain conditions during a pandemic.

For instance, the NOLO legal guide says it would generally be illegal in Indiana for your employer to fire you:

In retaliation after you complained about or reported unsafe working conditions, such as inadequate personal protective equipment, social distancing or cleaning

For refusing to work because you had a reasonable belief that you faced an immediate risk of death or serious physical harm due to unsafe working conditions

For refusing to violate a legal shelter-in-place order

For taking family or medical leave under state or federal law, including the Families First Coronavirus Response Act and the federal Family and Medical Leave Act

Because you have a pre-existing condition — including your age — that makes you more vulnerable to the coronavirus

Because you filed a claim for workers’ compensation benefits for COVID-19

Also, if you were essentially forced to quit your job because of serious coronavirus-related safety hazards that put you at risk, you might have grounds to sue your employer for wrongful constructive termination in violation of public policy.

Mehta urges low-income residents to contact Legal Aid to arrange to discuss their problems with a volunteer attorney in order to examine all options.

“We get a lot of calls when people are facing a legal situation for the first time, and they don’t know what to do,” Mehta said.

Even when legal options are limited, restrictions and conditions might change. And in addition to legal advice, Mehta said her organization also can contact other nonprofits and organizations capable of offering assistance.

Funding for Legal Aid comes from the state Civil Legal Aid Fund, Interest on Lawyer Trust Account Funds, Indiana Criminal Justice Institute and other community support.

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Founded in 1982, Legal Aid — District 11 has a pool of more than 75 attorneys who offer pro bono services throughout an eight-county region: Bartholomew, Brown, Decatur, Jackson, Jennings, Johnson, Rush and Shelby.

Appointed by the Indiana Supreme Court, Legal Aid provides advice clinics, community referrals and pro bono representation. Clinics provide free legal advice and counseling, and if one needs more assistance, they can apply for pro bono representation. Many need more than just legal assistance, and staff members will refer to other community agencies that may be able to assist.

Their offices are located at 1531 13th St., Suite G330, in the Doug Otto United Way building in Columbus. Staff members are Tasha Mann, executive director; Swaroopa Hurli, office manager; and Kashmira Mehta, paralegal.

For information, call 812-378-0358.

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Legal Aid will have a free phone clinic for residents of its eight-county district on Oct. 6.

The district includes Bartholomew, Brown, Decatur, Jackson, Jennings, Johnson, Rush and Shelby counties.

The phone clinic will be conducted from 3 to 5:30 p.m. with registration required between noon and 1:30 p.m.

Individuals can expect to receive a brief consultation to answer general questions, offer legal information or receive other limited pro se assistance or advice over the phone.

Individuals seeking legal consultation must register by calling 812-378-0358 between noon and 1:30 p.m. Oct. 6. A volunteer attorney will return calls to registered individuals between 3 and 5:30 p.m. Individuals must be available during those times to answer a call from an attorney.