Throughout the pandemic, ASUO Student Legal Services has assisted University of Oregon students with landlord-tenant disputes, domestic relations and unemployment claims.
The office will continue supporting UO students remotely — and in person, if necessary — through fall term, Ilona Givens, director of ASUO Student Legal Services, said. It will also offer notary services by appointment, a program that was recently suspended which provides legal authority on official contracts and documents.
ASUO Student Legal Services provides legal advice and assistance to all current UO students who pay incidental fees. Givens is one of three working attorneys employed at the office.
She put together a report in the spring of the office’s overall productivity and its accessibility to students during the pandemic. She said she was nervous when writing the report, but she recalled remembering how her office “hardly missed a beat” during the transition to remote work.
“When I put all that together,” Givens said, “I realized that we were as or more productive as we’ve ever been.”
Legal issues that arose frequently for students due to COVID-19 were related to domestic relations, unemployment claims or eligibility and lease-related concerns — already a major part of the practice, Givens said.
Givens, along with other ASUO Student Legal Services’ lawyers, dealt with many cases of divorce and separation over the summer.
Givens suspected the stress of changes in work and school and the general pressure of living during a pandemic caused this influx. She said she was glad to have not seen an increase in abuse-related cases.
“I kept reading that we were going to see more domestic violence because of people being trapped together and not being able to get away from their abusers,” Givens said, “and yes, we did have some of that, but, statistically, I didn’t see a spike there.”
When UO transitioned to remote operations due to the pandemic, many families called students home. Many other students lost jobs and could no longer afford rent, or didn’t feel safe living in communal or shared spaces due to preexisting conditions putting them in a high-risk group. Some students even got stuck overseas.
ASUO Student Legal Services assisted a number of students in these types of situations, Givens said. Lawyers can help students understand their legal options regarding a lease or help them get out of a lease — or at least minimize the damage from breaking one.
“There’s sort of a myth out there that there’s a secret way to break a lease, and there isn’t,” she said. “Every situation is different and it's dependent on the contract.”
Givens advises students — not just during the pandemic — to consult with ASUO Student Legal Services about the terms of a lease before they sign one.
ASUO Student Legal Services saw a number of cases regarding unemployment throughout the pandemic, she said. Students either lost their jobs or had to leave Eugene and had trouble arguing a good reason for quitting their job.
With the assistance of ASUO Student Legal Services, Givens said, one student was able to get back thousands of dollars in unemployment benefits, which were previously denied.
“We’re one of the few student programs that can actually return hard dollars to students,” she said.
ASUO Student Legal Services hasn’t yet had students call for assistance due to Oregon’s recent wildfires, Givens said, but the office may see that in the future. Many of those affected are just now able to “sort through the rubble” and figure out what to do next, she said. Givens said the office might see issues regarding insurance and displacement from the fires.
Lawyers might not get paid as much as they would elsewhere at ASUO Student Legal Services, Givens said, but they stay because of the great environment and because they enjoy helping students.
“I love working with students, for students, I really do,” Givens said, “but part of what keeps me going is the note — when it's all said and done — that I frequently will get, saying, ‘I don't know what I would’ve done without Student Legal Services.’”
Nick Keough, an ASUO senator, said Lane Community College has, in his experience, made legal services for students accessible. Students cannot bring litigations against the institution itself with the help of school-provided legal services, Keough said, which was his only complaint on the service.
ASUO Student Legal Services cannot assist students seeking legal assistance regarding disputes with UO students, employees or the university, Givens said. According to ASUO Student Legal Services’ website, this is due to program conflict policy.
Givens said issues related to conduct code, departments and discrimination can be brought to the Office of Student Advocacy, another program funded by UO incidental fees. OSA also deals with grade disputes, she said. The same goes for campus housing contracts or issues regarding dorms, she said.
Siobhán Nolan is a senior at UO and an office assistant at ASUO Student Legal Services, but she hasn’t worked physically in the office since the pandemic. Nolan says the service is valuable to students.
“Not only is it affordable for students,” she said, “it helps them gain a basic understanding of law which will continue to be valuable throughout their lives.”