News

Vermont Legal Aid and Legal Services Vermont are posting updates on VTLawHelp.org in regards to the coronavirus crisis. See the updated information here: COVID-19 Coronavirus: Legal and Benefits Updates for Vermonters.

Vermont Legal Aid and Legal Services Vermont are not seeing walk-in clients at this time. Please do not come to one of our offices. A sign will be posted saying our doors are locked and we are working remotely. Please use our helpline phone number or online form to ask us for help.  

(If you are a current client who made a specific appointment with one of our staff members, please confirm your appointment before coming.) 

Thank you for understanding as we follow recommendations from health officials and we work to lessen the impact of the coronavirus in our communities!

Press Release | February 25, 2020

Press Contacts: Sandra Paritz, Attorney, 802-495-0449 or
Rebecca Smith, Attorney, 802-775-0021           

MONTPELIER — A federal Court has ruled that tenants can bring claims against the City of St. Albans for unfairly removing them from their home after the landlord refused to make necessary repairs. Dwight Martell and Lynn Cook claimed that the City had abruptly shut off their water, electricity, and gas and ordered them out, making them homeless, all without having a legal basis for doing so.  They sued for violations of their Fourteenth Amendment due process rights and Fourth Amendment rights to be free from unreasonable seizure. The City moved to dismiss the tenants’ claims. On February 21, 2020, United States Magistrate Judge John M. Conroy denied the dismissal of tenants’ Fourteenth Amendment procedural Due Process claim and Fourth Amendment unlawful seizure claim; and granted dismissal of Tenants’ Fifth Amendment Takings Clause Claim. 

Rebecca Smith and Sandra Paritz of Vermont Legal Aid represent the tenants. “We filed this case because the City of St. Albans health inspectors forced low income and vulnerable tenants to immediately vacate their homes, not because there was an emergency, but because the landlord told the inspectors that he would not be making repairs to their building. In other words, instead of ordering the landlord to fix the problems, the city forced tenants into homelessness -- with no prior notice or opportunity to challenge their sudden eviction.” said Paritz. “Vulnerable tenants have very little power to enforce the health and safety codes themselves. If they complain or withhold rent, they risk retaliation from their landlord. They rely on the city to inspect their rental homes and require landlords to make necessary repairs to keep them safely housed. Unfortunately, the City of St. Albans failed to do that here. Instead, when the landlord said he would not make repairs, the inspectors suddenly shut off the tenants’ power, gas, and water and ordered the tenants to immediately vacate their homes.” she said.

The City of St. Albans had conceded that people have a protected right to their homes, but claimed that this was an emergency.  However, the City had originally given the landlord 37 days to make repairs. It was not until after the landlord said he did not intend to rectify the problems, that the City immediately declared the property unsafe for occupancy and ordered the tenants out. The Court found that this was enough to allege that “the City did not ‘reasonably believe’ that, at the time of Plaintiff’s eviction, an emergency existed . . . .”

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The Office of the Vermont Attorney General has named Vermont Legal Aid attorney Mairead O’Reilly the “Vermonter of the Month” because of her work on expungement. Learn more about criminal record expungement in Vermont and our expungement clinics. The attorney general’s press release follows.

Vermonter of the Month: Mairead O’Reilly

Now a staff attorney at Vermont Legal Aid (VLA), Mairead was a strong advocate for a change to Vermont’s expungement law. Thanks in part to Mairead’s effective work educating the legislature, building consensus, and amplifying the issue on social media, the law Mairead advocated for is now in effect, allowing individuals with certain criminal convictions, such as drug possessions, to be expunged.

Believing, as we do, that these individuals who have paid their debt to society should not continue to be punished by being denied access to jobs, housing, or education, Mairead has spear-headed expungement clinics in several counties around the state. The Attorney General and several staff members joined Mairead recently at an expungement clinic in Hyde Park. More expungement clinics are being planned for the future.

We visited Mairead in her office to learn more about the inspiring work she is doing.

You have been a passionate advocate for access to expungements. What drives your work in this area?

At the most basic level, I believe that the way we use criminal records in this country is both cruel and illogical, which is a combination I cannot tolerate. It’s also an issue that directly impacts so many of our people in terrible ways—approximately one-third of people in the U.S. have records.

The mass dissemination of criminal records, and the collateral consequences that result, is cruel because it brands people as “unworthy” of integration within the community and allows discrimination against them, sometimes for their whole lives. Even if our criminal justice system was perfect and responded to crime proportionately across all communities—which it does not—a person is sentenced to a penalty that is supposed to be proportionate with their crime. Tacking on additional punishment after they complete their sentence—in the form of social and economic exclusion—is unfair. It also erodes public trust in our system of justice.

I think that the way we use criminal records now is counterproductive to creating a vibrant, healthy, safe, and economically viable community. When we prevent access to opportunity, we create an underclass of people who have few legal options to sustain their lives, which makes our communities less safe. We also lose tax revenues because people with records are paid less, and are more likely to be on public assistance.

I firmly believe that no one’s life is disposable, and no one should be treated as though it is, ever, not even after they are convicted of a crime. We need to send that message to Vermonters by inviting them back into our communities. Expunging criminal records, both practically and symbolically, invites people back into our communities.

Vermont’s expungement law is less than a year old. What sort of impact is it making on the lives of Vermonters?

Criminal record expungement is not a cure-all, but recent expansions to the law have had many of the anticipated results, including bringing people back into the community and allowing them to live more dignified lives.

Our clients are getting accepted into colleges and training programs; they’re getting promoted; they’re being accepted into higher-paying jobs; they’re transitioning off of public assistance; and, they’re free to travel across the border and participate in their kids’ school activities. I hope we can find research partners to help us further analyze the outcomes for our clients.

It’s also worth noting that while we have seen a significant impact in the filing of expungement petitions, the uptake rates are likely still very low. I don’t have Vermont specific data, but a study out of Michigan found that six percent of people eligible for expungement petitioned within five years of eligibility. I imagine Vermont is somewhere around that percentage.

Realistically, for this sort of legal remedy to have the intended public safety and economic impacts, the answer is to automate record clearance as has been done in Pennsylvania, Utah, and California. Several states, including Colorado, Connecticut, and New York, have proposed similar legislation this session. I hope that Vermont will seriously consider implementing an automated system that clears records routinely after a set period.

You made your way to Vermont after law school by serving as the Vermont Poverty Law fellow. How did that work inform your current work?

You made your way to Vermont after law school by serving as the Vermont Poverty Law fellow. How did that work inform your current work?

The fellowship directly shaped the work I’m currently doing, and in a sense, VLA and I constructed and piloted my current job while I was the Fellow. Now, I am a staff attorney for VLA at a Medical Legal Partnership with the Chittenden Clinic and Safe Recovery, serving people with substance use disorders. As my fellowship was focused on the opioid crisis, during that time I collaborated with Safe Recovery, our medication-assisted treatment hub, and a few local spokes, and developed what I called a “Medical-Legal Partnership-esque” program.

This past summer, VLA received a grant from the Department of Health to continue and expand this collaboration. VLA now has two staff attorneys working as Medical Legal Partnership attorneys with the Chittenden and Washington County hubs and with Safe Recovery. We’re looking to expand the program into the Northeast Kingdom as well. 

As an attorney and advocate, what tools do you use to spread awareness about the challenges facing low-income Vermonters to make an impact on their lives?

I am a millennial, which is to say I think social media can be a very useful tool to highlight issues and challenges facing our communities. I also find that it’s an invaluable way to connect with folks doing similar work—to share lessons, challenges, and perspectives.

Another tool to both spread awareness and make an impact is to diversify the type of advocacy I engage in. I think that advocating in administrative and legislative branches can be an effective way to impact change. Many issues facing my clients are caused by laws and rules that were drafted without due consideration of their needs, so courtroom advocacy has its limitations. I think that sharing the practical realities of our clients in the legislature, while advocating for change, can be an effective way to both highlight and address root causes of poverty.

We hear a lot about how young professionals are leaving Vermont for more urban areas. What about Vermont keeps you committed to this community?

In short, the people; the human-centered politics; the topography; the ethos; the healthy, local food. To me, Vermont has all the ingredients for a pretty ideal existence, and selfishly, that makes me want to stick around.

There is also so much good, collaborative work for justice happening across the state, and there’s so much openness to further growth from professionals across disciplines. I’m not blind to the issues plaguing Vermont: we struggle with injustices of all kinds, and our institutions are far from perfect. But I see genuine commitment across the state, in all branches of government and in all sectors, to do better for our people and our environment. At the end of the day, that motivates me to stay, to help build a more just and equitable state, and to ultimately show the rest of the nation that another way is possible.

Recent press coverage for expungement clinics

WCAX-TV3: Legal clinic offers a chance for a clean slate

VTDigger.com: Legal expungement clinic offers Vermonters a chance to start over

VT Digger photo

Vermonters face broad and substantial unmet civil legal needs. These needs are present across the entire spectrum of civil legal subject areas — including family law, housing, healthcare, public benefits, debt and more. This statewide study reviewed a broad range of objective and subjective data to determine the most persistent areas of unmet civil legal need in the state. Follow this link to read the report.

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: October 4, 2019

PRESS CONTACT: Barb Prine, Staff Attorney, Vermont Legal Aid
(802) 863-5620 x254

 

MONTPELIER, VT – The Legislative Committee on Administrative Rules voted yesterday to approve a new rule on Gender Affirming Surgery for the Treatment of Gender Dysphoria. Vermont Legal Aid testified in support of this rule, which clarifies access to medically necessary surgery for the treatment of gender dysphoria. The new rule also removes excessive barriers to treatment for transgender and gender non-conforming Medicaid beneficiaries in Vermont.

“This vote is a victory for Medicaid beneficiaries and all Vermonters,” said Barb Prine, a Vermont Legal Aid staff attorney. She added: “It is the result of years of hard work and collaboration with clients, medical providers, Medicaid experts, and community leaders.” Vermont Legal Aid has represented transgender Vermonters seeking Medicaid coverage for gender affirming surgery since 1995.

The Office of the Health Care Advocate at Vermont Legal Aid is available for all Vermonters who need help accessing medical care. “If you have questions about access to gender affirming surgery or other access to health care issues, contact our HelpLine at 1-800-917-7787,” said Amelia Schlossberg, Communications Coordinator for the Office of the Health Care Advocate.

The Office of the Health Care Advocate (HCA) is a project of Vermont Legal Aid. The HCA provides free help to all Vermonters with questions or problems with health insurance or access to health care. The HCA works to improve Vermonters’ access to quality affordable health care through individual and systemic advocacy.

Vermont Legal Aid (VLA) is a non-profit law firm that provides legal advice and services to individuals and families throughout Vermont who are facing a civil legal problem that threatens their rights, shelter, job, health, or well-being. VLA began serving clients in 1968.

Take our survey about the civil legal problems that face low-income and vulnerable Vermonters.

Legal Services Vermont and Vermont Legal Aid want to meet with you. The nonprofit law firms want to know more about the civil legal problems facing low-income and vulnerable Vermonters. They are holding seven meetings around the state to hear from Vermonters, their community partners and supporters. 

“We want to hear from as wide a cross section of Vermonters as possible. Everyone is encouraged to participate in this process,” said Sam Abel-Palmer, Executive Director of Legal Services Vermont.

“Civil” legal problems are any legal issues that are not criminal in nature. However, the organizations do help with the legal problems of crime victims. Also, the organizations help people with expunging and sealing past criminal records.

Staff from Vermont Legal Aid and Legal Services Vermont will be at the public meetings. They will use the information gathered to help decide where to put their legal aid resources. It’s part of a statewide legal needs assessment process the organizations will use to provide civil legal help where it’s needed most. The organizations work together to help thousands of Vermonters around the state each year.

Here’s the schedule of public meetings. No registration is needed and light refreshments will be provided.

 

NEWPORT

Wednesday, October 23, 1:00-2:30 p.m.

Goodrich Library, 202 Main St., Newport

 

ST. ALBANS

Monday, October 28, 1:00-2:30 p.m.

Community College of Vermont (CCV), 142 S. Main St., St. Albans

 

BENNINGTON

Wednesday, October 30, 1:00-2:30 p.m.

Community College of Vermont (CCV), Room 152, 324 Main St., Bennington

 

RUTLAND

Wednesday, October 30, 5:30-7:00 p.m.

Community College of Vermont (CCV), Room 102, 60 West St., Rutland

 

BRATTLEBORO

Monday, November 4, 1:00-2:30 p.m.

Community College of Vermont (CCV), Room 271, 41 Harmony Place, Brattleboro          

 

MONTPELIER

Tuesday, November 5, 2:00-3:30 p.m.

Bethany UCC Church, 115 Main St., Montpelier

 

BURLINGTON

Tuesday, November 5, 7:00-8:30 p.m.

Legal Services Vermont, 274 N. Winooski Ave., Burlington

 

Please note: Visitors to Community College of Vermont should stop at the main desk for a visitor’s badge.

We are holding the Guen Gifford Advocate Training on Wednesday, October 23, 2019, at the Barre Civic Center. Learn more!

Unless it is blocked by the courts, the United States government will change how it makes “public charge” decisions starting October 15, 2019. “Public charge” or the “public charge test” is used by immigration officials to decide whether a person can enter the United States or get a green card. Learn some important facts on our legal help website

The Housing Discrimination Law Project (HDLP) at Vermont Legal Aid works to stop housing discrimination and to protect Vermonters' right to choose where they live. The project recently updated its brochures in English and eight other languages. Staff also produced short videos in English and five other languages. Funding for the videos came from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Follow this link to see them.

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