The economic damage inflicted by the pandemic will have long-lasting effects on people’s finances and could increase the likelihood for many to face evictions and debt collections, Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada executive director Barbara Buckley told Clark County Commissioners Tuesday.
As the need for legal assistance rises, legal aid’s Civil Law Self-Help Center is expected to have its $570,000 budget cut by 56 percent in the next fiscal year.
“(The center) is going to be needed more than ever to help people with evictions and foreclosures,” she said. “We really can’t cut these emergency legal programs that are so needed.”
With record unemployment claims in the state, no guarantee how many will return to their jobs and finite unemployment benefits, people are, and will continue, to struggle to pay rent and bills. That could easily lead to evictions after the state moratorium is lifted, costly debt collection penalties, or car repossessions from missed payments.
“The bottom line is that financial obligations have legal consequences,” Buckley said. “We will see upticks depending on our reemployment rate over the next 12 months. Maybe longer.”
When people can’t afford an attorney, the Civil Law Self-Help Center is often a last resort for assistance with navigating an often complicated legal process.
Christine Miller, the Director of Community Initiatives and Outreach for the organization, said the center is funded by the courts, which are themselves facing declining revenues.
In 2019, 47,725 people made their way through the center, which is operated by a staff attorney and five legal information facilitators.
“Someone will come in looking for information,” Miller explained. “Maybe they received an eviction notice and don’t know what to do. Or maybe they want to sue someone in small claims court. The (legal facilitators) aren’t allowed to give legal advice but can help guide people through the court process and make sure they have access to the forms they need.”
But with the cuts, which would go into effect in the next fiscal year, half the staff would be cut and less people are likely to get assistance.
County Commission Chair Marilyn Kirkpatrick agreed about the necessity of keeping the Civil Law Self-Help Center afloat, but said it’s a matter of figuring out how to sustain programs during the crisis.
Tuesday’s presentation was a chance for Buckley to underscore the rise of legal needs throughout Southern Nevada. The organization reported 3,220 people came to the center in April seeking help, compared to 946 people in April 2019 — a 240 percent increase.
“Since the pandemic, requests for legal help have skyrocketed,” Buckley said. “The most frequently requested area of help are illegal evictions, landlords ignoring the moratorium or sending out their security force to ask people to leave. Also, the first weekend when the restrictions began to lift, domestic violence calls increased 143 percent.”
They’ve also received increased calls about wage garnishment and car repossession.
Buckley said the center hasn’t typically worked with small businesses in the past. But the pandemic has changed that with owners reaching out about landlord issues or wanting to know about legal options they might have if they signed a personal guarantee on a loan but the business might fail.
She asked the county to consider working with Legal Aid to emulate a program called L.A. Represents, which was setup by Los Angeles County and helps small businesses that have been hurt by COVID-19 access pro bono legal assistance.
“If we can help some small businesses get some quick legal advice on their situation, we may save that business, save jobs and prevent us from having additional clients down the road,” Buckley said.
Commissioners didn’t take any action on the presentation, but agreed to work with Buckley on next steps.