A call to arms

Dallas’ volunteer lawyers are needed now more than ever

Natalie Brandt, May 19, 2020

The coronavirus’ insidious ability to directly impact every aspect of everyday life has been well-chronicled. It affects us all in some form or fashion, as resoundingly affirmed by the recent shelter-in-place policy for Dallas.  It strikes at the rich, the poor, every race, gender, and creed.

But, the coronavirus’ indirect impacts are not nearly as egalitarian. They mirror and amplify many of our most glaring societal inequities. The most vulnerable among us – kids, the indigent, the hungry – are decidedly more susceptible to pernicious spillover aspects of the virus itself. North Texas hospitals, for example, are reporting a disturbing spike in child abuse driven by the effects of home quarantine and financial and health stress. Low-income renters face eviction with little recourse. Pre-existing social vulnerabilities are exacerbated across the board and we are reminded that access to justice is everyone’s right, but access isn’t guaranteed.

Amid these risks, it is vitally important to spotlight and ensure resources for one of Dallas’ unique strengths: an oft under-appreciated but very robust legal aid service. The Dallas Volunteer Attorney Program (DVAP) serves thousands of Dallas’ low-income citizens by providing essential legal services to those who need it most. According to Attorney at Law Magazine, DVAP provided full representation to almost 1,200 people in 2018. That number does not include the nearly 1,800 other people who were assisted with legal advice or provided a related legal service.

With courthouses restricted only to true emergencies – and the temporary closure of DVAP’s own community legal clinics – the plight of vulnerable kids, the poor and those on the fringes is even more acute. The clinics could stay closed for an extended period of time and volunteers necessarily must withdraw amid the fear of contagion – two developments that, on their own, could seriously jeopardize legal services.

So, what now?  If we operate on the premise that, “Justice delayed is justice denied,” then first we should double-down on DVAP’s mission and mobilize the energy and expertise of the Dallas legal community – many of whom have more time on their hands due to delayed litigation and corporate activity.  Second, we should shed light on the problem itself. The plight of the small businessperson should include commensurate attention paid to the grandmother fighting for custody rights for a child caught in an abusive home. Or the young adult whose job prospects are delayed only by a quick record expungement. Or the single mom who needs to finalize an uncontested divorce in order to qualify for government assistance. Some simple. Some not. But these, and many others, are all common problems with or without COVID-19 at play. Once the full impact of this quiet enemy is revealed, however, the needs of Dallas’ underserved communities will only grow. Lawyers need to step up accordingly.

Further, technology has a role to play (for those with access) and many legal aid agencies have assembled helpful online resources, including online applications for legal assistance (DVAP’s is available here and TexasLawHelp for eviction information here).  And, we need policy-makers and bar association leaders to step in and create incentives for Dallas’ lawyers (and there are a LOT of them) to actively engage with DVAP and other legal aid services, educate the folks who depend on legal aid, and make sure they know there is help. Let’s get creative with incentives, perhaps reduced bar fees or CLE credit for volunteer hours. There is a solution. Dallas’ vibrant legal aid network stands by, ready to help.

Our health and the economic impact of this virus have been getting almost all of our attention − and that’s as it should be. It’s been heartwarming to see the collective push toward acts of humanity, from direct monetary donations to creative ways to support our local businesses. But if we are in this for the long haul, then lawyers and legislators, and policy-makers must come together to ensure that the heart of our justice system keeps beating for those who need it most.