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Pro bono groups transition to remote services amid virus outbreak

‘Given the incredible numbers of people experiencing homelessness, having one legal clinic was insufficient to meet the need,’ Antonia Fasanelli, executive director of the Homeless Persons Representation Project, about the organization’s opening a satellite office in Rockville. (File photo)

Antonia Fasanelli, executive director of the Homeless Persons Representation Project in Baltimore. (The Daily Record/File photo)

Despite the challenges of court closures and mandatory work-from-home policies being incorporated in response to the coronavirus outbreak, pro bono groups in Baltimore have begun implementing remote services to stay connected with clients in need of free legal aid.

For many of these organizations, it means switching to phone calls and online methods such as video calls and emails to connect staff attorneys with low-income and homeless clients who want to stay up to date with their court hearings, many of which are being postponed due to the courts’ closing.

“We’re adjusting to the new reality,” said Antonia Fasanelli, executive director of the Homeless Persons Representation Project in Baltimore. “If people were on a list to see us, we’re contacting them directly by phone or email, and saying let’s talk about the legal issue over the phone, and then we’ll email case documents.”

Normally, HPRP offers in-person services at shelters, soup kitchens and courthouses, among other locations throughout the state. With many places now closed, HPRP, like other nonprofits such as Maryland Legal Aid, has posted instructions on the door for how clients can reach the office by phone or online.

In immigration court, individual hearings have been postponed and only the detained docket — which consists of immigrants who are in custody — will be heard for the foreseeable future, said Cate Scenna, director of the Immigrant Legal Assistance Project at the Pro Bono Resource Center of Maryland.

The project, which provides in-court legal advice from volunteer attorneys and Spanish-speaking translators, has switched to a video conference format. On Wednesday, Scenna said, PBRC held its first remote service clinic, with seven people – mothers and children — calling in for immigration legal advice.

“Just because the court is not having hearings doesn’t mean their case is going away, so we thought it was important to keep having those services,” Scenna said, adding that PBRC is interested in learning how video conferences might be useful once the courts return to normal operations.

Scenna added that rescheduled hearings could take place far in the future.

“The cases will just continue and be rescheduled for a later date,” Scenna said. “What that date is, though, is anybody’s guess, as court dockets for individuals are already full for most judges for a few years.”

While many pro bono attorneys say they’re proud of their organization’s response to the coronavirus outbreak so far, some foresee challenges as a result of canceled in-person services.

Reena Shah, executive director of the Maryland Access to Justice Commission, said Monday that she was concerned about the ability of legal aid attorneys to serve populations that may not have the technology or ability to use remote services.

Specifically, Shah said that the closure of libraries could create a significant barrier for some people who rely on libraries for access to the internet.

“For a lot of people, (libraries) were the connection,” Shah said. “With the libraries closed as well, I do think there are challenges for the most vulnerable, in whether they will be able to interact with providers there to help them.”

Shah added that while the civil legal aid community is “chronically underfunded,” she’s impressed with the steps legal aid providers have taken so far to remain connected with clients.

“To see the amount of creativity and ingenuity they’re using to still be there for clients is really impressive,” Shah said.

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