Our Work Is Not Yet Done

Traditionally, the January issue of the Tennessee Bar Journal focuses on access to justice.   It honors the nearly 2,000 Tennessee attorneys who provide pro bono services and voluntarily report their activities. Individuals are recognized for specific representation or work that advances the administration of justice by providing access to those who otherwise would not be able to participate in the court or legal system. Tennessee attorneys should be proud of these efforts and should focus on other resources to serve our citizens at or below poverty level in our state.

In an early "President's Perspective," I shared sobering statistics on the numbers of Tennesseans who are at or below the poverty level in our state, and the critical need for pro bono service. Uncertain economic factors guarantee the likelihood that the population of those in need of civil legal services will grow, while history shows that funding sources are diminishing. United States Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, in remarks to the University of District of Columbia School of Law in 2001, noted that the United States falls far behind other countries in public funding for the legal representation of poor people. The combined civil legal services spending of the United States' local, state and federal government agencies in the 1990s averaged approximately $2.25 for poor people. Comparatively, New Zealand per capita level was approximately three times that amount, the Netherlands was approximately four times that amount, and England, with per capita outlay of $26, exceeded U.S. funding by more than 11 times. It has been recognized that Legal Services Corporation funding, which provides funding for Tennessee programs, has only recently been restored to levels dating back to the 1980s. One can reasonably assume that current per capita spending for civil legal matters for those below poverty level is far less than those shared by Justice Ginsburg years ago.

In Tennessee, there are continued efforts focused throughout our profession on insuring access to justice in our state. The Tennessee Supreme Court appointed a Task Force to Study Self-Represented Litigants Issues. This group was given the charge to study challenges in our legal system to assure meaningful access to justice for self-represented litigants, a growing population of our court system. Many of those litigants had been denied meaningful access to the courts because they did not have legal assistance from an attorney, and there was no uniform instruction or forms for their use to represent themselves. The Tennessee Bar Association, through the Family Law Section, Juvenile & Children's Law Section, and Access to Justice Committee, devoted countless hours reviewing proposals from the task force and provided reasoned comment to the Tennessee Supreme Court. The Tennessee Supreme Court created the task force to remove the obstacle for these participants in the legal system, which is exemplary, as is the work by the task force and the TBA sections and committees.

Law schools in Tennessee provide opportunities for students to participate in pro bono clinics. The programs established at University of Tennessee College of Law, Vanderbilt University Law School, and University of Memphis College of Law provide credit to law students for their participation in serving the public.

Recent federal legislation encourages public service by student loan forgiveness: programs for public service through prosecuting attorneys, public defenders, and legal aid attorneys provide loan forgiveness under certain conditions that require participation in those public service capacities for a period of time. These programs offer incentives and opportunity for licensed attorneys burdened by debt, to acquire a legal education to serve the public.

The Supreme Court of Tennessee recently announced grants to insure access to justice through a variety of programs. The Commission on Continuing Legal Education had collected excess fees and penalties from attorneys licensed in this state; the Tennessee Supreme Court appointed a Blue Ribbon Committee chaired by Margaret Behm to make recommendation for use of these funds. Recipients of grants included the Tennessee Alliance for Legal Services, an organization of legal aid entities throughout the state. The Tennessee Legal Community Foundation was awarded $103,597 (for which a dollar-for-dollar match is required) to fund the Tennessee Loan Repayment Assistance Program focused on attorneys employed by nonprofit organizations that provide civil legal services to low income Tennesseans. CASA programs (volunteers as advocates for children in the juvenile court system) for Nashville were each granted funds to recruit and train volunteer advocates. The Jackson-Madison County Bar Association was awarded $10,000 for a program directed toward pro se family law litigants. Each of these programs provides additional resources to insure access to justice at the ground level in our courts.

In addressing the issue of guaranteeing access to justice, as attorneys we also need to direct our focus to enhancing available resources, and increasing awareness of the continued need for resources. Donations to funding for legal aid associations, or volunteer efforts by attorneys, throughout the state is a start. Support for funding to Legal Services Corporation at the national level by contacting our elected representatives from Tennessee is another important area to which attorneys can contribute.

As lawyers, we have a professional responsibility to our legal system, and to the participants in that system, both judges and litigants. We are the ones who have to insure that everyone has access to justice.

... As lawyers, whether we like it not, whether we want to be or not, ... are irrevocably committed, by virtue of the fact that we are lawyers, to a direct participation in the shaping of the kind of society in which we live.
"Governor William F. Winter, Speech "Our Duty to the Law," Hines County Bar Association, Jackson, Miss., 1965

Historically, January marks a new beginning. It is a time that traditionally sees Americans making resolutions for the upcoming year. This new year is a time of celebration and renewed commitment for ourselves and our profession. As we proudly honor those who have sacrificed personal or professional time to provide assistance to those who cannot pay for legal services, we need to be mindful that there is more to be done.