Pro Bono Network aids access to legal services

Opinion: Columns

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Heena Musabji

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Each of us is struggling to adjust to the "new normal" brought about by the coronavirus (COVID-19). Sheltering-in-place, social-distancing, and caring for our families, coupled with unprecedented uncertainty, is changing the way we go about our lives.

One thing that has not changed is the need for access to legal services for our most vulnerable neighbors and those disproportionately affected by COVID-19, including seniors, domestic-abuse victims, immigrants, and low-income residents. Although courts are closed, justice never rests — even during a pandemic.

At Pro Bono Network (PBN), our staff, volunteers, and partner agencies have stepped up and are creating new ways to serve clients in need, remotely and safely, learning new technologies, adapting current projects and starting new ones, all while juggling increased personal responsibilities at home.

  • PBN continues to work with domestic violence victims in helping them file emergency order of protection paperwork, now through a hotline. "On-call" volunteer attorneys talk with the client who is already in the courthouse, drafts the paperwork, and sends it to the courthouse for filing.
  • PBN's advanced directive and will clinics allow volunteer attorneys to work with low-income seniors over the phone to explain and draft critical health-care, financial-planning, and end-of-life documents.
  • PBN continues to provide online clinics for volunteers who are answering legal questions submitted online through the American Bar Association's Free Legal Answers portal.
  • PBN is meeting with clients over the phone and drafting appropriate expungement petitions, which will be filed as soon as the courts reopen, thereby allowing clients to apply for jobs and housing, without an old record affecting them.
  • PBN was recently trained to help people file for federal and state benefits in light of COVID-19. Volunteer attorneys will be meeting with clients over the phone and filing their applications online.
  • Additionally, PBN is planning to partner with another legal aid agency to become trained in legal issues around unemployment insurance.
  • And PBN continues to adjust our existing services to our new reality, including meeting virtually with our clients seeking a divorce, filing new cases with the clerk's office electronically, then preparing cases while waiting to hear how courts will proceed once they reopen.
  • Drafting U-Visa applications and affidavits for undocumented victims of domestic violence via online meetings and email to ensure applications are filed by federal deadlines.
  • Coordinating with the United States Social Security Administration to continue filing applications and appeals on behalf of clients who are seeking available financial relief.

We are proud of the work PBN and our partner agencies are doing to assist clients affected by the pandemic in Cook and DuPage counties. It proves that even if we have to remain socially distant for the near future, we can continue to connect meaningfully with one another and do good.

If you are an attorney who would like to get involved, or a community member looking to donate, we encourage you to support our efforts at pro-bono-network.org or donate online at givingdupageday.org/organizations/pro-bono-network.

Stay safe and take care.

Heena Musabji is the director of development of the Pro Bono Network, P.O. Box 469 Oak Park, IL 60303, 708-665-3359.

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