The state Supreme Court on Friday announced a plan to create a statewide “access to justice” commission in early 2009 to address a chronic lack of funding and manpower for legal aid in Tennessee.
According to the state’s administrative office of the courts, more than 1 million Tennesseans qualify for civil legal aid because they live at or below federal poverty guidelines.
But the lack of attorneys and funding — there are only about 75 lawyers in Tennessee working full time for the state’s four private legal aid centers — means that most poor people who need legal representation never receive it.
“We only take on the triage cases, the worst of the worst,” said David Yoder, executive director of Legal Aid of Eastern Tennessee. “We can’t do the preventative work we need to do.”
During a news conference Friday in Nashville, Supreme Court Chief Justice Janice Holder also announced other measures to improve access to the legal system. The state court system is redesigning its Web site, has hired an access-to-justice coordinator and will begin an educational campaign to inform the public of the legal aid crisis, she said.
“Polls have shown that most Americans believe that low-income people already have a guaranteed right to counsel in civil as well as criminal matters,” Justice Holder said.
In fact, poor people, unlike indigent criminal defendants who are guaranteed legal representation through the public defender system, do not receive the same benefits if sued in civil court.
The three biggest legal problems facing the poor in Tennessee are conflicts with predatory lending practices, medical bills and health insurance and utilities issues, according to the Tennessee Alliance for Legal Services.
The Supreme Court did not announce a plan for extra funding for Tennessee’s legal aid centers, private organizations that receive federal and state funds but rely mostly on alternative revenue streams to operate.
In the 2008-09 budget, $3.3 million has been allocated for legal aid, compared with $7.5 billion for health care, Justice Holder pointed out.
“While health needs are important, unmet legal needs can impact the health, welfare and safety of Tennesseans in very similar ways,” she said.