Access to Justice Is the Main Priority - Articles

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Posted by: Elizabeth Todaro & George Lewis on Jan 1, 2013

Journal Issue Date: Jan 2013

Journal Name: January 2013 - Vol. 49, No. 1

Since 2008, the Tennessee Supreme Court and the Tennessee Bar Association have collaborated and directed efforts in an unprecedented way to make access to justice a strategic priority. Many significant accomplishments have come out of that historic collaboration, but much work remains to be done. Although we have every right to be proud that our court and our bar have become national leaders in the fight for access to justice, the things we have done since 2008 are not nearly enough. We have to begin anew every day. We have to work hard and smart, investing our resources in ways that will inspire others to join us in this ambitious endeavor. This is the challenge that guides the next phase of the Strategic Plan of the Access to Justice Commission. Fortunately, 2013 offers many opportunities to develop and utilize strengthened collaboration among the judiciary, its Commission, the TBA, legal service programs, the private bar and law schools as we pursue some key initiatives.

Expanding Available Resources

A grant from the Tennessee Commission on Continuing Legal Education and Specialization has funded two new programs that will serve to increase legal services for those in need in Tennessee. The first initiative will help increase the number of opportunities for volunteer attorneys to become involved with legal clinics and similar projects. The new pro bono coordinator position will develop new clinics and other initiatives, focusing on areas that do not currently have free legal resources for low-income individuals, as well as offering support to grow existing programs. This initiative brings together those interested in creating legal clinics, faith-based groups, and groups already providing these services. A Pro Bono Clinic Organizer Conference, planned for 2013 in Nashville, will be an opportunity to exchange ideas and encourage initiation of new clinics by covering topics such as needs assessments, logistics of providing legal services, marketing and advertising to clients, and promoting and sustaining volunteer participation.

Even when lawyers are ready and willing to work with clients in need, sometimes the specific legal issues presented are outside the volunteer’s area of expertise. The Commission is working with organizations and attorneys that are experienced in some of these most “high needs” areas and venues to create online resources, including training videos, curriculum materials and sample forms that will help volunteers prepare for representing clients in these contexts. The first areas of focus are family law and debtor/creditor issues. They can be found on the Administrative Office of the Courts website at www.tncourts.gov/programs/access-justice.

Connecting Those in Need with Available Resources

A second new initiative is the creation of a statewide toll-free legal information number. 1-888-aLEGALz helps callers get answers to basic legal questions, as well as referral and advocacy assistance if their legal information needs cannot be met on a phone call. This new service also provides an opportunity for meaningful referrals to other resources in their area, recognizing that so many individuals seeking legal assistance would be well-served by connecting with social service providers for additional support. Building on the innovation of OnlineTNJustice, the toll-free line will be another way for Tennesseans with legal questions to get prompt information at no cost, with the added benefit of having the opportunity to speak directly with an attorney.

“1-888-aLEGALz will be a one-stop shop for Tennesseans seeking direction with their legal problems,” explained Erik Cole, executive director at the Tennessee Alliance for Legal Services (TALS), which houses the project. “It will provide brief advice and referral to callers from across the state and should help them access assistance more quickly. With this project, the court and the commission continue their strong record of enhancing services to Tennesseans in need of legal assistance.”

Assisting Self-Represented Citizens

Even with increased pro bono services available, there remains a huge need to help the public better understand and navigate the legal system, especially in situations where they will be representing themselves in proceedings. The Access to Justice Commission is producing a series of educational videos with basic information about preparing for court, as well as developing and recommending additional plain-language forms for pro se litigants. You can find them at www.tncourts.gov/programs/self-help-center.

Increasing educational resources can empower people to be better advocates for themselves and their families, whether they have legal representation or not. However, concentrating resources on public education should not shift the focus away from the ongoing need to increase the availability of free and low-cost legal representation.

Inspiring All Tennessee Lawyers

Imagine a Tennessee in which every lawyer joins to improve access to justice in their own way, a Tennessee in which we use every new technology and every traditional resource to get legal advice to every single person who needs help but cannot afford a lawyer, where no individual who wants a lawyer ever stands alone in a courtroom, where pro bono hours are expected by every firm, every legal department and every government agency in Tennessee.

To achieve that goal, we must maintain all the initiatives that are in place now and do many new things. We need to craft them in a way that makes them exportable to other states. We can never stop innovating. We can never give up. We in this profession have become some of the most important stewards of the case of access to justice. We must press on with a sense of urgency, personal passion and unwavering commitment.


Buck Lewis GEORGE T. “BUCK” LEWIS is a shareholder wtih Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz PC in Memphis, where he handles complex litigation and arbitration. He is chair of the firm’s appellate practice group. He is a former Tennessee Bar Association president and past president of the Memphis Bar Foundation. He is chair of the Mid-South Chapter of the American Red Cross, and chair of the Tennessee Supreme Court Access to Justice Commission.

 

 

Liz Todaro LIZ TODARO is the access to justice and public education coordinator for the Tennessee Bar Association. She earned a bachelors degree in political science from Emory University and a law degree from the City University of New York Law School. She has more than 15 years of experience in the fields of domestic violence, family law, criminal justice, women’s issues, political advocacy and education reform.