Access to Justice Commission Annual Report Shows Huge Collaborative Effort to Bring Legal Services to Tennesseans in Need

May 16, 2018

Ten years ago, the Tennessee Supreme Court made access to justice its top strategic priority, and over the years one thing has become abundantly clear: improving access to legal services in Tennessee is a collaborative effort. In its first-ever annual report, the Tennessee Supreme Court Access to Justice Commission demonstrates the thousands of people and organizations—from private practice attorneys to county clerks to houses of worship to legal aid providers —that have worked to improve access to justice in the state.

“Access to the justice system is a critical issue as economic barriers disadvantage many of our neighbors who need civil legal help,” said Supreme Court Justice Connie Clark. “What we have learned in the past 10 years is that there is no single solution, no magic bullet to solve this issue. But, with all hands on deck, we are having an impact and are improving lives across the state.”

Over 1 million Tennesseans, or 1 in 6 people, live below the federal poverty level. Approximately 60 percent of low-income households experienced a civil legal problem in a given year. 

While there is a right to an attorney in most criminal cases, there is not a guaranteed right to an attorney in civil law cases, even though those cases commonly involve life-impacting issues like child custody, bankruptcy, eviction, credit disputes, divorce, unpaid wages, and workplace discrimination.

Low-income families often do not have the ability to hire a lawyer to assist with these issues and have limited resources to handle the problem on their own.  In addition, certain populations, including seniors, veterans, people with disabilities, rural residents, and the working poor are more likely to have civil legal issues.

The Tennessee Supreme Court noted this troubling state of affairs 10 years ago when it created its Access to Justice Commission.  Over the years, the Commission has built partnerships with thousands of attorneys and organizations to provide legal support for Tennesseans in need. As a result of that hard work, in 2016 the Justice Index ranked Tennessee one of the top 10 states in the country in terms of providing access to the courts. Progress has only continued since then.

“Over the past two years, we have embarked on a building and strengthening phase that saw the expansion of legal advice clinics throughout the state, the implementation of a statewide communications outreach plan, an increase in pro bono recognition, and the development of our Faith and Justice initiative,” said Marcy Eason, chair of the Commission from 2016 to2018 and a partner at Miller & Martin PLLC in Chattanooga.

Several initiatives highlighted in the annual report, include:

  • HELP4TN Day 2017 – In which 53 events were held simultaneously across the state, providing assistance to over 800 people
  • Self-help forms – The Commission’s new self-help divorce forms were viewed more than 85,000 times in 2017. There are multiple guides and forms available on tncourts.gov and justiceforalltn.com
  • Legal aid - The state’s four Legal Services Corporation-funded legal aid groups closed more than 20,000 cases and provided a plethora of outreach and service projects
  • Clinics - The Commission’s recent focus on expungement clinics has helped thousands of Tennesseans get a fresh start. Across the state, the Commission assisted with over 400 legal clinics in 2017, and there has been a legal advice clinic in each of the state’s 31 judicial districts.
  • Pro bono - Tennessee attorneys provided over $118 million in pro bono services in 2016. Almost half of all registered attorneys did pro bono work and over 590,000 hours of pro bono legal services were provided.
  • Faith and justice - The unique Tennessee Faith & Justice Alliance held its first-ever Pro Bono and Faith Days event, with nearly 50 houses of worship participating. The Alliance has over 150 partners to date.

The Access to Justice Commission has grown to include six different committees with representatives from Tennessee’s institutions of higher education, state government, legal community, business community, nonprofit community, faith community, and more.  In addition, the Commission now has two full-time staff members.

“We have momentum and are really seeing access to justice issues become engrained in our state culture,” said Gail Vaughn Ashworth, chair of the Commission for 2018-2020 and a partner at Wiseman Ashworth Law Group PLC in Nashville. “The Bench, the Bar, and our community organizations know we need to collaborate to make real progress. Tennessee is the Volunteer State and our state is also known as a nationwide leader in developing innovative programs and resources to help achieve access to justice for all.”

The full report is available here