Tennessee Supreme Court Takes Steps to Assist Attorneys, Legal System During COVID-19 Crisis

The Tennessee Supreme Court has recently filed several orders and modified policies to help attorneys navigate the covid-19 pandemic and mitigate its impact. While courts across the state are open, some in-person court proceedings have been suspended through April 30. The Court has filed orders or modified policies relating to payments for attorneys providing indigent representation, continuing legal education for both 2019 and 2020, notarized court documents, requirements for in-person proceedings, and the use of technologies including video and audio conferences.

“Judges, attorneys, court clerks, and everyone across the court system are working very hard to keep cases moving forward. The legal system cannot just stop,” Tennessee Supreme Court Chief Justice Jeff Bivins said. “The amount of innovation we are seeing is incredible. Judges and lawyers are holding hearings, meetings, and other proceedings via Zoom and other tools. We recognize and appreciate that this crisis is impacting many in the court system, including attorneys — especially those that accept and provide legal representation for indigent Tennesseans. We value and appreciate this work, now more so than ever.”

All of the Supreme Court’s orders relating to covid-19, as well as orders, memos, and policies filed by local courts and other resources, can be found on www.tncourts.gov/coronavirus. The webpage was launched in early March and has received more than 10,000 visits. Attorneys should utilize the page for the most up-to-date information and orders from courts across Tennessee.

Appointed Counsel

The Administrative Office of the Courts is charged with running the indigent representation fund program, which processes up to 900 claims for payment a day, and over 100,000 a year. To help expedite payments to attorneys, the Supreme Court has amended Rule 13 to raise the automatic approval rate from $199 to $400. In addition, the AOC is taking action on the approximately 850 claims in the system awaiting judicial approval.

“The Chief reiterated yesterday on a conference call to judges the importance of getting those claims approved ASAP so attorneys can be paid immediately,” AOC Director Deborah Taylor Tate said. “The AOC staff is contacting each judge that has not utilized ACAP yet and either signing them up immediately or accepting alternative methods of sign-off.”

Under the current language of Rule 13, attorneys do not have to wait for a case to end to enter a claim into ACAP. If a case has reached the cap amount, or most of the work has been completed, an attorney may decide to file the claim now to expedite payment. The attorney can only file one claim per case, however, and cannot file a second claim once the case is closed. The AOC also strongly recommends all attorneys using ACAP sign up for direct deposit, which can expedite the receipt of payment by over a week compared to receiving a paper check.

The AOC implemented a new payment system – known as ACAP – in February 2018. Under the previous system, the processing of claims often ran between 45 to 60 days. Several months after ACAP came online, claims processing dropped to about 35 days and is now about 25 days in the first quarter of 2020, a 25 percent drop in the last several months.

Continuing Legal Education for 2019, 2020

Another major step that will assist is all attorneys across Tennessee is the relaxation of the in-person continuing legal education requirements. The Supreme Court filed orders allowing all required continuing legal education for 2019 and 2020 to be done through distance learning. Under Supreme Court rules, only eight of the required 15 hours of yearly CLE can be achieved through distance learning and the remainder is required to be live, in-person training, which can be more expensive and require travel. The recent orders allow all remaining 2019 CLE and all 2020 CLE to be earned through distance learning.

Notarized Documents

The second order filed March 26 directly links to the “Online Notary Public Act,” Tenn. Code Ann. § 8-16-301, et seq., which became effective July 1, 2019, and the regulations promulgated by the Secretary of State at Sec. of State, Tenn. R. and Reg. 1360-07-03-.01. Additionally, with regard to court filings, declarations under penalty of perjury may be used as an alternative to a notary. Attorneys are encouraged to use both of these tools.

Suspension of Rules that Inhibit Use of Technology

In addition, any Tennessee state or local rule, criminal or civil, that impedes a judge’s or court clerk’s ability to utilize available technologies to limit in-person contact is suspended through Thursday, April 30, 2020.

“We are encouraging everyone in the legal community to think outside the box and be innovative whenever possible,” Chief Justice Bivins said. “We need to be accommodating and flexible wherever we can. We are learning day-by-day, even hour-by-hour, how to best work under these circumstances.”

Board of Professional Responsibility Proceedings

The Supreme Court issued an order March 27 suspending Board of Professional Responsibility proceedings and extending deadlines through April 30. The Board of Professional Responsibility is open and hearings and other proceedings may be conducted by telephone, video conference, or other means. The Board may respond on an emergency basis as needed. Time periods and deadlines set forth in Tennessee Supreme Court Rule 9, Sections 10.4 (bar cards); 10.5 and 10.6 (non-payment delinquency notices, fees and suspension) and Rule 43 section 15 (IOLTA delinquency notices, fees and suspension), are extended through April 30, 2020.

Tennessee Lawyers Assistance Program

The Tennessee Lawyers Assistance Program (TLAP) is open and ready to assist attorneys who may be facing extra stress and pressure because of the coronavirus outbreak and related closures. TLAP is a free, confidential assistance program providing consultation, referral, intervention, and crisis counseling for lawyers, judges, bar applicants and law students who are struggling with substance abuse, stress, or emotional health issues. Judges, attorneys, and others in the legal profession may also refer colleagues to the program.

“To all of our legal family, we at TLAP want to let you know that we are up and running during this difficult time of COVID-19 and understand the many complications that have arisen in the legal community,” said Judge Michael Spitzer, TLAP Commission Chair. “Yet, we are confident that this too shall pass, and it will not only make us all stronger, it will help you, as lawyers and Judges, find new ways to serve the public.”

Administrative Office of the Courts Open

The Administrative Office of the Courts is open, fully functioning, and will continue to operate.

“AOC staff across every division has been working around the clock since March 13 to secure new equipment, expand bandwidth,
roll-out new technology, field questions from courts, change policies, and problem-solve. Our mission to ensure the efficient administration of justice has never been more important and we are 100 percent dedicated to working through this crisis,” Director Tate said.