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Legal Aid groups, federal courts benefit from CARES Act

For Mid-Missouri Legal Services, grant funding from the $2.2 trillion federal relief package cannot come soon enough.

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security, or CARES, Act, signed March 27 by President Donald J. Trump, includes a $50 million appropriation for Legal Services Corp., which plans to make $2 million available to legal aid organizations across the country for technology upgrades to allow remote work.

The allocation is one of several that will benefit those in the legal community in both personal and professional capacities, whether by providing small-business loans, suspending certain federal student loan payments or enabling the courts to respond to the COVID-19 crisis.

At a time when workers for many businesses and organizations have switched to remote work at home to reduce potential exposure to COVID-19, staffers of Mid-Missouri Legal Services are still working in their offices in Columbia and Jefferson City, Executive Director Susan Lutton said. The reason: they lack laptops and other technology that would enable them to work off-site.

“Right now, most of us are here, and it’s really hard to have people in a building and stay far apart,” she said.

For most of the staff, working from home is a “luxury we’ve never had,” Lutton said. Anticipating grant funding from Legal Services Corp., MMLS recently has ordered about a dozen laptops and is hoping grant money will give staffers more flexibility to work from home, she said.

The remaining $48 million appropriated to Legal Services Corp. will be divided among legal aid organizations across the country, using a formula based on the number of people living in poverty and the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in an organization’s service area.

Dan Glazier, executive director of Legal Services of Eastern Missouri, said his organization is grateful for the extra funds, adding they are greatly needed. He said finding the resources to serve a low-income population is always a challenge.

“The need is so great, and the resources don’t come near that,” he said. “Then you throw in something like this, you add these kind of unsettled circumstances and the need becomes that much greater.”

Lawyers who hold federal student loans owned by the U.S. Department of Education also will see some help from the CARES Act.

Michael Doyel, a consumer bankruptcy attorney in St. Louis, said the department has suspended automatic payments and no payments are due until Sept. 30. The law also locked in a zero-percent interest rate through Sept. 30, according to department guidance.

“The big caveat we have to worry about is this only applies to student loans that are held by the Department of Education,” he said, noting that relief does not apply for those with loans that are federally backed but held by other commercial lenders, or private loans.

For lawyers who are taking part in the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program, there’s also some help: Doyel said lawyers with loans that qualify for suspended payments will not be penalized if they don’t make payments through Sept. 30.

According to department guidance, those who have a Direct Loan, were on a qualifying repayment plan prior to the suspension and work full-time for a qualifying employer during the suspension will receive credit for the suspension period as if they were making on-time monthly payments.

The CARES Act also contains $7.5 million for the U.S. court system “to prevent, prepare for and respond to coronavirus, domestically or internationally.” The bill allocates $500,000 for the U.S. Supreme Court, plus $6 million for appellate and district courts, as well as $1 million for defender services. The funding is intended to help staff work remotely and cover courts’ increased costs of pretrial and probation services, including drug testing and treatment.

The bill doesn’t detail how the money would be distributed. Greg Linhares, clerk of court for the Eastern District of Missouri, and Paige Wymore-Wynn, the court executive for the Western District, said in emails that they’ve received no guidance on how the funding would be used and that the allocations likely would be made by the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts in Washington. The agency’s public affairs office didn’t respond to a request for comment.

The CARES Act also provides authorization for federal courts to make greater use of video or telephone conferencing for some criminal proceedings, such as initial appearances and arraignments, so long as the defendant consents. It requires the Judicial Conference — the administrative policy-making body for the federal courts — to find that the COVID-19 crisis will “materially affect the functioning of the federal courts generally.”

The Judicial Conference quickly made such a declaration, and both Western District Chief Judge Beth Phillips and Eastern District Chief Judge Rodney W. Sippel followed suit March 30 with orders to implement videoconferencing in their courts. The orders are to last 90 days unless terminated earlier.

Senior Reporter Scott Lauck contributed to this story


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This item is part of Missouri Lawyers Media's free coverage of how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected the legal community.

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