COLUMBUS — Since the coronavirus health crisis began in Ohio in early March, Ohio Legal Help has seen a dramatic spike in the number of people seeking help on its website for unemployment issues. Visits to its website pages covering evictions and public benefits have increased significantly, as well. The site’s COVID-19 page, which provides information about and links to helpful resources, is receiving more visits than any other page except the unemployment page.
“These trends aren’t surprising,” said Susan Choe, executive director of Ohio Legal Help, the nonprofit organization that runs the online legal assistance portal OhioLegalHelp.org. “They reflect the major concerns that Ohioans have right now as a result of coronavirus. Thousands of people have lost their jobs or have been furloughed, and they’re looking for help navigating the legalities of unemployment benefits, foreclosures, evictions and other issues they’re now facing.”
Choe wants visits to the portal to increase even more as it provides free legal information, legal forms and referrals to lawyers – services that many people, especially those with low incomes, desperately need as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
COVID-19 is exacerbating and highlighting a long-standing problem that, until now, has unfolded primarily out of the spotlight. People who need legal help the most are often the ones who don’t have access to it because it’s too expensive or they simply don’t know where to look for help.
“The people in Ohio most affected economically by the pandemic have quietly struggled with issues like evictions, foreclosures, bankruptcy and child custody for years without the benefit of an attorney or the knowledge to secure one,” Choe said.
A study in 2017 found that 71 percent of low-income households had experienced at least one civil legal problem the previous year, and more than half of those households had faced at least two civil legal problems. Sadly, the majority of them dealt with their problems without the help of a lawyer. In fact, 86 percent of civil legal problems faced by low-income Americans receive inadequate or no legal help. It’s a problem referred to as the “justice gap” – the difference between the civil legal needs of low-income Americans and the resources available to meet those needs.
OhioLegalHelp.org was launched by the state’s legal system in 2019 to help address the justice gap. In addition to its COVID-19, housing and unemployment pages, the portal also provides information about family issues, financial issues, senior citizens, health and public benefits, and benefits for veterans and service members.
“We want to be a resource now and in the future for anyone who needs legal help,” Choe said. “Income shouldn’t dictate who can and cannot get the assistance they need to navigate the legal system, especially at a time like this.”