On September 22, 2020, the Tallahassee Democrat published an opinion column by Rep. Anna Eskamani calling for funding of civil legal aid through the CARES Act.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has led to millions of Floridians facing significant civil legal issues which threaten their livelihoods, families and homes.
I know this firsthand, because our legislative office has been fielding thousands of calls and emails from across the state, supporting Floridians who are facing issues like eviction, foreclosure, bankruptcy, and domestic violence. The options for legal representation are limited, and as public servants, we often look towards civil legal aid organizations as a safety net for Floridians navigating these crises.
We’re now six months into this pandemic. A fourth Congressional relief package is unlikely, thousands of Floridians are facing the potential of homelessness, and more Floridians are seeing their furloughs extended or are losing their jobs entirely. With every late monthly payment and eviction notice posted on someone’s door comes the need for civil legal aid. Yet in Florida, this essential service is both underfunded and severely strained.
The Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution provides a right to counsel in criminal proceedings, but courts have not recognized a right to a lawyer in the vast majority of civil cases. This puts justice out of reach for low-income people, and undermines a fundamental principle of our nation, that: the amount of money a person has should not determine the quality of justice they receive.
That’s why I am urging Gov. Ron DeSantis to use a portion of the remaining $5.8 billion in Florida’s Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act monies to fund civil legal aid through the Florida Bar Foundation. Since 1956, the Florida Bar Foundation has served as our state’s hub for civil legal aid funding and assistance, linking all of Florida’s qualified legal aid providers throughout the state.
More than 40 legal aid programs in Florida are working on cases around the clock that involve housing, domestic violence and more that have arisen from COVID-19. The use of CARES Act funds for this purpose falls squarely within its intent: Fund necessary expenditures incurred due to COVID-19 that were not previously in the existing budget.
Moreover, such funding will help ensure that Floridians are provided the due process they deserve in the thousands of lawsuits brought by residential landlords and lenders who are defying both the state’s Executive Order putting a moratorium on evictions and foreclosures, and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s most recent order halting residential evictions until December 31, 2020.
It is in every person’s interest – especially during a global pandemic – to protect Floridians from eviction, and that’s exactly what funding civil legal aid will do.
Legal aid is a service essential to our communities – it is an economy builder and protects the rule of law. It prevents small legal issues from snowballing into large problems for veterans, children, the elderly, small business owners, and countless other working poor and vulnerable Floridians. A 2016 study found that civil legal assistance in Florida generates $7.19 of economic impact for every $1 spent on legal aid by federal, state and local governments and foundations.
COVID-19 has dramatically impacted our economy, and Floridians deserve access to expert legal help that will get them back on their feet, allowing them to contribute and participate in the nation’s collective recovery. CARES Act funding would help make that happen, facilitating both support and justice for people across this state.
Please join me in urging Gov. DeSantis and other elected officials to support CARES Act funding for and access to civil legal aid. Call (850) 717-9337 or email GovernorRon.Desantis@eog.myflorida.com. ”
Eskamani, a Democrat representing District 47 in the Florida House of Representatives, was first elected in 2018.