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Who Will Help?
Court, bar groups and leaders take lead in the civil legal services crisis
In December, the Tennessee Supreme Court announced its multifaceted campaign to help address what was characterized as a "profound civil legal needs crisis." The announcement came at a press conference attended by more than 100 leaders from the bench, bar groups, court agencies, lawmakers, public officials, and business and civic communities. Speaking for the Court, Chief Justice Janice Holder said that the court was committed "to finding innovative, effective and efficient ways to address the very real gap in civil legal services in this state."
According to the court's numbers, there is one legal aid attorney for every 13,000 eligible Tennesseans.
"It is no exaggeration to say that low-income Tennesseans have little hope of legal assistance when they encounter civil legal problems," Chief Justice Janice Holder said at the press conference in December. "Only one in five income-eligible people will receive the legal help they need. We have 75 very dedicated legal aid attorneys in Tennessee, but they simply are not able to assist all of the many low-income Tennesseans who encounter legal problems on a daily basis."
The court's campaign will include programs to educate community leaders about the problem; promotion of innovative involvement by judges like preferential docketing of cases where clients are receiving pro bono representation; recognition of law firms that adopt pro bono policies; and support for the Tennessee Bar Association's statewide 4/4 Public Service Day on April 4.
The court also announced it has created a new access to justice coordinator position and it will be forming a new Access to Justice Commission to study access issues, develop a strategic access plan and take steps to implement the plan.
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A 2004 study conducted for the Tennessee Alliance for Legal Services showed that of those who qualify, 70 percent experience at least one civil legal problem in a year and more than 40 percent experience as many as three legal problems a year. These legal problems are caused by such things as predatory loans, uninsured, medical bills evictions and foreclosures.
"The growing unmet legal needs translate into more people unable to avail themselves of existing legal protections because they do not have access to legal advice or representation and, as a result, may feel they are denied access to the courts," a news release from the Administrative Office of the Courts says.
The court's program complements a campaign announced last summer by TBA President Buck Lewis for an aggressive campaign, called "4 All." The effort is meant to "attack a problem that is growing worse by the day despite our constant efforts. That problem is the denial of access to justice caused by poverty, domestic violence, our deteriorating economy, and the ever increasing cost of legal services."
The 4ALL campaign involves legal groups across the state in a four-pronged attack on the problem. It focuses on education, collaboration, participation and legislation. (For details, go to www.tba.org/4ALL.)
Holder told those at the news conference that "the collaboration with the TBA on access to justice issues began with the Court's early participation in the '4All' campaign and continues with the Court's consideration of rule changes proposed by the TBA relating to pro bono representation. We will continue to collaborate with the TBA and other bar associations in a number of ways, including judicial promotion of the Statewide Public Service Day developed by the TBA as part of the 4All campaign."
The Court, Holder added, is also asking the judiciary, bar associations around the state, and access-to-justice organizations to join the Tennessee Bar Association and the Supreme Court in promoting and publicizing the April 4 Statewide Public Service Day. She told the crowd that "4/4 will feature sponsored events providing pro bono assistance in communities around the state for people who otherwise might not have access to legal advice. The Statewide Public Service Day will provide an opportunity to focus media attention on the gap in civil legal needs and on the cooperation of lawyers and judges in meeting this challenge."
"The Court's announcement represents an historic collaboration between the judicial branch and the TBA and Tennessee's other bar associations," TBA President Buck Lewis says. "The Court's strategic emphasis on access to justice and its endorsement of the TBA's 4ALL campaign, including the adoption of pro bono plans by firms and the statewide service day on April 4, has already provided tremendous momentum to our campaign."
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"These are exciting times for those of us in the Access to Justice community," Legal Aid of East Tennessee's Associate Director Deb House says. "Under the leadership of TBA President Buck Lewis we have seen several important access-to-justice issues advanced in a very short time.
"The creation of an Access to Justice Coordinator position at the AOC speaks volumes to their commitment to these issues in Tennessee," House, who is chair of the TBA Access to Justice Committee, says.
"As a provider of legal services as well as a leader in the community, I can honestly say I have never seen so much energy around access-to-justice issues, from so many diverse quarters across our great state. As our clients continue to struggle with access to our court systems and the providers continue to be asked to do more with less, the emphasis on access issues gives me great hope for the future."
Even before these recent developments, the Tennessee Bar Association was committed to and active in the pursuit of access to jusitce for all. The TBA created the new position of access to justuce coordinator " one of just a handful of bars to do so " more than five years ago. (It was such a good idea and the coordinator, Becky Rhodes, did such a good job that the court has now hired Rhodes for its new position. TBA staff member Anjanette Eash, who has headed the Youth Court effort, has been promoted to Rhodes' old position.)
Corporate Counsel: The TBA Access to Justice Committee, in conjunction with the TBA Corporate Counsel Section and the Association of Corporate Counsel (ACC), are planning the third annual Corporate Counsel Pro Bono Initiative Gala. It will be June 16 in Memphis at the Peabody Hotel to celebrate the growing pro bono partnership among Tennessee's corporate legal departments, law firms, and access-to-justice organizations. In its first two years, the Corporate Counsel Pro Bono Initiative has raised more than $120,000 to fund grants and outreach events held around the state, from Kingsport to Memphis. The Initiative has already funded several grants to promote pro bono projects for corporate counsel. (To learn more about this project, go to http://www.tba2.org/tbatoday/news/2007/ccinitiative_2007.)
4/4 Public Service Day: As part of President Lewis' 4All campaign, the TBA is partnering with local bar associations and legal aid organizations to offer free legal services across the state on April 4. The goal of the day is twofold: to create awareness about the unmet legal needs of Tennesseans and to harness the resources of the state's legal community to meet as many of those needs as possible. In some locations, local bars will continue holding their standing "Saturday Bars," while other areas will offer new and unique pro bono services. Preliminary plans include clinics for women in domestic abuse situations, young people facing charges in juvenile court, the elderly, and those dealing with mounting debt. As plans firm up, projects will be listed on TBALink. As the date approaches, please visit www.tba.org/4ALL for information on how to get involved in your local community.
Young Lawyers Division: The TBA Young Lawyers Division is on the forefront of pro bono activities, through Operation Volunteer, TennCare Appeals, Project Salute and Wills for Heroes.
In Operation Volunteer, the YLD participates in the ABA's Legal Assistance for Military Personnel (LAMP) program known as Operation Enduring LAMP. Service members and their families seeking pro bono legal assistance contact the Tennessee Bar Association and are referred to the YLD Disaster Relief Committee.
The YLD recently recruited young lawyers to attend a CLE/training session to learn how to handle TennCare administrative appeals. The session was hosted by the Tennessee Justice Center and Tennessee Alliance for Legal Services Nov. 20, 2008, in Memphis. Attendees received free CLE credit in exchange for taking one pro bono case
For Project Salute, the YLD recruited young lawyers to attend a CLE/training session to learn how to provide pro bono legal assistance to veterans. That session was hosted by the Detroit Mercy School of Law Nov. 21 in Chattanooga. Attendees received free CLE credit in exchange for taking one pro bono case.
Finally, under the leadership of TBA YLD President Michelle Sellers, the YLD has made Wills for Heroes a priority project and is holding clinics in each of its 14 districts around the state.
Wills for Heroes is a unique pro bono program that provides wills, advance directives, powers of attorney and other basic estate planning documents to emergency first responders and their families. The YLD recruits volunteer attorneys to draft the documents, and notaries and witnesses to finalize the documents on site. It also provides access to specialists for those with more complicated estate planning needs that are beyond the scope of the event. Despite the inherently dangerous nature of their jobs, approximately 80 to 90 percent of first responders do not have wills.
Also scheduled through the year are legal clinics in conjunction with Legal Aid offices across the state.
Lynn Pointer, Stacey Shrader, Becky Rhodes and Suzanne Robertson contributed to this story.ï¿½
SUZANNE CRAIG ROBERTSON is editor of the Tennessee Bar Journal.