Sunshine project

LACONIA — A new study has exposed serious financial woes and gaps in legal help for New Hampshire's neediest residents, including victims of domestic violence – justice and safety challenges that have become more pressing with the pandemic.

Surveys conducted for the New Hampshire Supreme Court’s Access to Justice Commission during June and August 2020 pointed to unmet, urgent and ongoing demand for free or low-cost legal advice and representation in a range of areas, including divorce, child custody and domestic violence cases, accessing unemployment benefits, and escaping snowballing consumer debt.

The report, based on phone and online surveys of nearly 1,000 clients and social service providers, indicated that New Hampshire’s legal aid system is strapped to the limit, and there’s a priority to expand awareness and access to free services across the state.

As demand has grown, the state’s nonprofit legal firms have had to limit the scope of who they serve to people in the direst circumstances, bypassing many others who qualify for and warrant their help. This means many who are income-eligible are turned away in a screening process that has often become a triage of life-threatening versus chronic and less serious, a call that can be difficult to make, according to state legal experts.

“The civil legal aid network will have to continue prioritizing who it helps and with what kinds of problems,” Mark Rouvalis, co-chair of the Access to Justice Commission, wrote in the report. “Civil legal aid is not the only way to level the playing field for low-income people, older people, and people with disabilities, but it is an essential tool.”

“There are way more people in need than are served,” said Sarah Mattson Dustin, executive director of New Hampshire Legal Assistance, one of four legal nonprofits that serve low-income residents, a category that has likely grown because of COVID. “Economic security is so tied up with ‘Can you pay your rent? Can you get SNAP?’ – food stamps and unemployment? To the extent that we have a sluggish recovery (from the effects of the pandemic), we’ll see a long-term increase in demand.”

The report found that each year thousands of New Hampshire residents, predominantly women, go to court seeking protection from domestic violence, usually without an attorney – a problem that is not confined to low-income people.

Although NHLA’s unemployment cases spiked during COVID, other categories ebbed during the pandemic shutdown from April through June, Dustin said.

During that time, divorce, child custody and domestic violence – major and consistent focus areas for legal aid agencies – declined to about half the number of a year ago, a statistic that did not reflect actual demand, which was suppressed by staying at home, Dustin said.

“During that time, our clients didn’t have safe ways to access the system,” Dustin said. Privacy was harder to come by, and victims were quarantined at home with abusers, which made it difficult or impossible to reach for help by phone or computer. Processing through the court system stalled, creating a backlog that still persists, and current open cases are requiring more time to resolve – especially divorce and child custody cases that take over a year in normal circumstances, she said.

The commission’s legal needs survey asked for people’s concerns over the past several years, not just as a result of COVID.

Elliott Berry, co-director of The Housing Justice Project at NHLA’s, says there’s a long-term trend toward people representing themselves without legal counsel, and that is compromising outcomes.

It’s a problem that also affects domestic violence victims. Erin Jasina, director of The Domestic Violence Project at NHLA, said roughly 75 percent of plaintiffs in family law cases are unrepresented. “Most people are going to court on their own,” she said. The cases are difficult and tangled even for experienced lawyers, she said. Because of staff limitations, “We can’t accept every single case for divorce, parenting or protective orders” – even when they clearly meet NHLA’s guidelines for income and severity of circumstances. Priority is given to “high-lethality” cases, she said – which means many low-income people in chronic, volatile and troubling circumstances are enduring, or representing themselves.

When it comes to domestic violence, “Victims often don’t present well. They’re traumatized and afraid. Their abuser is sitting at a table six feet away. Because of trauma, they might be experiencing mental health issues. All these things work against them in court,” Jasina said.

“Abusers often don’t have that problem. They’re cool, calm and collected and often present very well,” she said. Victims, on the other hand, go into court being told, “I’m going to get the kids because nobody’s going to believe you,” Jasina said. “When you’re traumatized and want to protect your kids, how do you get a stranger or a judge to understand that?” Misperceptions persist that domestic violence is evidenced by visible bruises, not emotional or psychological abuse, which is often an equal or greater danger, according to domestic violence experts.

“The state continues to see an increase in complex domestic violence cases, including many of which raise red flags for potential future violence,” said Alyssa Dandrea, community relations specialist for the NH Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence. “The pandemic has created unprecedented opportunities for abusers to re-offend and led to calls for early release of offenders nationwide” – which has only increased victims' risk. COVID-19 has created new challenges to accessing critical support, Dandrea said.

Women’s shelters and domestic violence crisis centers refer the highest-lethality cases where there’s significant risk of serious harm or death to private attorneys and legal aid agencies such as NHLA.

“We have to turn a lot of those cases away because there’s just not enough people to represent the people who need help,” said Jasina. “To have these threats come to life is terrifying, and it’s a huge barrier to people seeking help.”

NHLA’s Domestic Violence Project serves individuals who are married or unmarried, with or without children, who qualify under NHLA’s income guidelines independently, without counting the income of the abusing partner or spouse.  Seniors age 60 and up do not have to meet NHLA’s income limitations that apply to other legal services. In general NHLA and LARC – the Legal Advice and Referral Center in Concord, another source of free assistance – serve people whose incomes are at or below 200 percent of poverty level, depending on their county and the size of their household.

Based on responses to the survey, awareness of free legal services needs to increase, and more walk-in offices should be established to serve people in their own communities.

“We have significant holes around the state and Laconia is one of them,” said Dustin. NHLA has locations in Manchester, Portsmouth, Berlin, Claremont and Concord, which helps clients in the Lakes Region. Eventually NHLA hopes to expand to offices in Nashua, Keene, the Mt. Washington Valley and Laconia, Dustin said.

There’s also a widening, worrisome gap between those who qualify for free legal aid and those who have enough money to pay for private counsel, which has led to more people representing themselves in court, without knowledge or experience.

The New Hampshire Bar Association’s referral service, Modest Means, connects callers to lawyers who have agreed to work for reduces rates, but the service is “nowhere near big enough to meet demand,” Dustin said. “It’s a really significant shortcoming in how we get legal services to the people who need them.”

Roughly 250,000 state residents qualify for free legal aid because they fall at or below the income eligibility guidelines, according to the access to justice report. “Many of our clients are below the poverty level itself,” Dustin said.

To more efficiently serve the target population, LARC and Pro Bono – which refers low-income people to private attorneys who provide help at no-cost – plan to become a single agency in 2021.

•••

The Sunshine Project is underwritten by grants from the Endowment for Health, New Hampshire’s largest health foundation, and the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation. Roberta Baker can be reached by email at Roberta@laconiadailysun.com

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