Several Harvard Law School clinics are shifting their focus to provide legal aid to vulnerable populations affected by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
Legal clinics offer students the opportunity to gain practical experience and provide pro bono aid to real clients. The Law School currently offers 46 clinics and student practice organizations covering more than 30 areas of law.
Sabrineh Ardalan — director of the Immigration and Refugee Clinic — said the group is currently advocating for the release of its clients from densely populated detention centers where detainees are unable to practice social distancing.
“We’ve been doing policy advocacy to try to get Immigration and Customs Enforcement to release immigrant detainees from detention centers locally and nationally,” she said. “We’ve also been doing advocacy to try to get Immigration and Customs Enforcement to halt immigration enforcement actions.”
Ardalan noted the clinic’s team at Greater Boston Legal Services successfully secured the release of one of its clients from a New Hampshire detention center Friday.
The clinic also continues to serve its clients who are not detained by connecting them to health services and financial assistance.
“Our social worker, Liala Buoniconti, has been busy with a lot of clients to try to connect them to unemployment insurance — to try to connect them to funds for undocumented workers,” Ardalan said.
Emily M. Broad Leib, who directs the Food Law and Policy Clinic, said the group is finding ways to aid food producers and farmers unable to sell their food to restaurants, universities, and other large buyers.
“Some of our work has been really looking at what are the ways that we can try to send funding to them to kind of purchase this food they produce and also make sure that it doesn’t get wasted,” she said.
Broad Leib also said the pandemic has drastically increased the number of people facing food insecurity due to unemployment and reduced income, and that students at the clinic hope to find ways to address this growing problem.
“We’ve been doing a lot of work thinking about how can we get more money into the emergency food system and also about how we can get more opportunities for that food to be delivered to people in their home,” Broad Leib said.
The Law School’s Federal Tax Clinic also continues to serve its clients, but partial IRS closings limit its ability to operate, according to the clinic’s director, T. Keith Fogg. Still, students at the clinic are working to help those who need to obtain their tax rebates but cannot fulfill the necessary filing requirements on their own.
“The clinic has engaged in advocacy, to the extent allowed, to encourage the IRS to create rules that do not require individuals to file tax returns in order to obtain the rebate if they are otherwise identifiable by the IRS through Social Security or VA records,” Fogg wrote in an emailed statement Monday.
Fogg wrote stipulations attached to the clinic’s federal grant restricted its ability to help people prepare their current year tax returns or file other information needed to receive tax rebates. The Federal Tax Clinic can only represent taxpayers who have a “controversy,” or ongoing dispute, with the IRS.
Volunteer Income Tax Assistance sites typically provide current year return assistance, but many of these sites are closed due to the pandemic or require in-person meetings with the taxpayer.
“The people who need help because of the pandemic don’t need controversy assistance,” Fogg wrote. “If the grant administrators change their interpretation of the statute and if we can find students to assist us, we will expand our efforts to assist people with current filing requirements in order to obtain the rebate and to otherwise assist in filling the gap left by the closure of the VITA sites.”
The Low Income Taxpayer Clinic Program announced Tuesday it would allow temporary exemptions to the grant’s requirements due to the pandemic. Fogg said the clinic will now be able to more freely provide needed tax assistance.
Broad Leib said she applauds the extra work students in clinical programs are taking on through their efforts to help during the pandemic.
“A lot of them have just gone way above their workload hours to do this extra research,” she said. “We really rely on the kind of brainpower and research skills and creativity of the students that are really digging into these issues and helping us come up with solutions.”