Top three legal problems of Tennessee’s poor
* Conflicts with predatory lending practices
* Medical bills and health insurance
* Utility issues such as ability to pay deposits and make payments
Source: Tennessee Alliance
Tennessee spends about $3.3 million a year on legal aid for those living below the poverty line, while funding for health care tops $7.5 billion.
State Supreme Court Chief Justice Janice Holder recently focused on the huge funding gap in a speech to newly minted lawyers, calling on them to help remedy the financial shortfalls currently burdening the legal aid system.
“Funding for legal services has been cut while the number of people in need of legal services has increased,” Justice Holder said in her speech. “Legal problems often impact the health, welfare and safety of Tennessee’s citizens with sometimes equally devastating effect (as health care problems).”
The Tennessee Supreme Court will introduce a new initiative today in Nashville that is expected to have a significant impact on the way in which poor people gain access to a complicated — and expensive — legal system.
Declining to talk about the program’s details in advance of the announcement, Justice Holder said earlier that the Supreme Court plans to encourage greater pro bono participation by private attorneys and also is committed to helping the public better understand the “growing crisis” in the legal aid world.
“I don’t expect any announcement on funding,” said David Yoder, the executive director of Legal Aid of East Tennessee, one of four nonprofit legal aid centers across the state that rely on private donations and other sources for the majority of their operating expenses.
But he said the Supreme Court’s assistance in the way of manpower or publicity would help them better serve the more than 1 million Tennesseans who qualify for free legal services because they live at or near federal poverty levels.
Mr. Yoder said there is little understanding of the legal aid crisis because of the misperception that those too poor to hire a lawyer in civil matters — much like indigent criminal defendants who are guaranteed representation through the public defender system — are guaranteed similar access to legal professionals.
There is no such guarantee in civil cases, Mr. Yoder said, and because of a lack of funding and resources, it means most people unable to afford legal help never get it.
Currently, the majority of the state’s legal aid cases are turned away due to lack of manpower and funding, confirmed Erik Cole, executive director of the Tennessee Alliance for Legal Services, which mirrors the national trend.
“It’s rare to find any legal aid service in the country that can serve more than 20 percent of the total need,” Mr. Cole said.
There are only 75 legal aid attorneys, or roughly 1 for every 13,000 eligible people, in Tennessee. The four who work in Chattanooga are currently handling a total of more than 300 cases.
According to the state’s administrative office of the courts, the number of attorneys falls drastically short of a goal established by Congress in 1978 to have one legal aid lawyer for every 5,000 eligible people.
“Of all the challenges we face, we’re only able to meet 5 (percent) to 10 percent of the need” in Eastern Tennessee, Mr. Yoder said. “We have to turn away thousands of people every year, and I can guarantee that is the hardest part of the job because we know they don’t have anywhere else to go.”