CHATTANOOGA – When you hear “crisis” or “pandemic,” one of the first things you picture is a doctor, a nurse, or other first responder putting “boots on the ground” to help those in need.

What you may not realize is that lawyers, or “suits on the ground,” can make a huge difference when people are struggling to deal with the effects of sudden, unexpected crises like the novel Coronavirus.

Legal Aid of East Tennessee is staying open so we can continue to meet the legal needs that will be created or compounded by this crisis. We know that our low-income, elderly, abused, and otherwise vulnerable neighbors are disproportionately affected by business closures, the strain on the healthcare system, and the suspension of civil court proceedings.

The COVID-19 Pandemic will make it harder to maintain safe housing, to put food on the table, to buy necessary medicines, to get to and from work, and to access available social services. Many of our clients have jobs that do not provide paid leave time or the ability to work remotely.

In order to keep everyone safe during these uncertain times, our attorneys, paralegals, and other professionals are working remotely and limiting in-person meetings to emergency situations; however, there are several ways to reach us and find out if you qualify for free legal help.

• Call the closest office (see list at www.laet.org), and a paralegal or other trained professional will either answer the phone or call you back to gather additional information.

• Complete the Online Intake Application located on our website, www.laet.org, and a paralegal will contact you.

• Current clients can continue to call or email their individual attorneys as usual.

During the crisis, LAET expects to see an increase in landlords who resort to unlawful self-help efforts such as locking people out of their homes, turning off the water or other utilities, etc., when the landlord becomes frustrated by the inability to lawfully evict tenants during the suspension of court hearings. Our staff can assist these tenants by educating them about their legal rights, sending cease and desist letters to landlords, and accessing the courts in the event of an emergency.

LAET’s Family Justice Centers expect to see an increase in domestic/intimate partner violence during the outbreak. Lost jobs, closed schools and day cares, and the need to shelter in place or self-quarantine all work together to increase isolation and heighten tensions in what already may be volatile relationships. Our attorneys and paralegals are specially trained to provide help and guidance, and they want to make sure the public knows that Orders of Protection and emergency custody orders are matters that the courts will hear despite the suspension of regular court operations. If you need help or are being prevented from filing an Order of Protection, please call your local Legal Aid of East Tennessee office.

We also expect to see an increase in the number of individuals who will fall behind in paying their bills and face repossession of their vehicles, termination of essential services, inability to pay for medication, or garnishment of their income. Our staff can assist these clients by filing necessary motions and pleadings with the court to protect income and assets from garnishment, negotiating with creditors to reach a temporary or permanent solution, and educating clients about their legal rights and obligations.

LAET can direct struggling families and individuals to various available resources and help them navigate the process of securing public benefits. For example, workers who have lost their jobs due to COVID-19 can apply for unemployment benefits. In addition, the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF or Families First) program is making additional funds available to assist families during this crisis.

The restriction on visitors to nursing homes and hospitals is also causing significant issues for our staff and for the individuals who need to execute legal documents for healthcare and decision making. LAET is exploring various options, including the use of technology, to help us meet the needs of the institutionally bound clients and their families.

LAET is also staying informed about the steps each county court system is taking to deal with cases that have already been filed. Our lawyers are keeping our clients informed about these matters as information becomes available to us.

None of us will know the full extent of the impact of the COVID-19 outbreak for some time; however, LAET is keeping track of emerging issues and developing strategies to deal with those issues as they arise. As you cover the effects of COVID-19 on your community, we urge you to email or call us so we can connect you with a local legal expert who can discuss the emerging legal problems and possible solutions with you. From lost wages to evictions, to quarantines while dealing with domestic violence, the impacts of the Coronavirus pandemic will be far-reaching and long-lasting. Accurate, timely information and communication will be essential as we all face a world that is very different today from what it was just yesterday.

Legal Aid of East Tennessee’s mission is to strengthen communities and change lives by providing high-quality legal services to low-income East Tennesseans. LAET serves eligible residents of 26 counties from offices located in Blountville, Chattanooga, Cleveland, Knoxville, Johnson City, Maryville, and Morristown.