published Wednesday, April 8th, 2009

Tennessee: New state panel aims to make getting legal aid easier


by Monica Mercer
Audio clip

Margaret Behm

A new commission created by the Tennessee Supreme Court begins work this month with the goal of making it easier for the state’s poorest residents to get help when they have legal problems.

The new “Access to Justice” commission has 10 members and will make direct recommendations to the state’s highest court regarding how to fix the legal aid problem in Tennessee.

The lack of legal aid across the state is a “growing crisis,” according to the Supreme Court, with about 75 full-time legal aid lawyers able to meet just 20 percent of actual need.

Legal experts also point out that most of the “working poor” in Tennessee — those not included in the more than 1 million residents living at or below the poverty line who qualify for legal aid — make too much money to qualify and yet are unable to afford legal help when the need arises.

“We have a big task,” said Margaret Behm, the Nashville lawyer heading the commission for the next three years. “Particularly with the economic downturn, there’s the statistic out there that one out of every four or five people cannot access the legal system because of their inability to hire a lawyer.”

Ms. Behm said the state has an obligation to make sure everyone can get the legal services they need. According to the Tennessee Alliance for Legal Services, the top types of legal aid cases in Tennessee include conflicts with predatory lending practices, problems with medical bills and utility issues such as the ability to make deposits and payments.

The commission plans to meet for the first time at the end of April and has been directed by the Supreme Court to have a strategic plan in place by April 2010. New rules already have been added to ethics guidelines in which the Supreme Court strongly urges every Tennessee lawyer to perform at least 50 hours of free legal service a year.

Such pro bono work is essential to filling the gap for those who don’t qualify for federally funded legal services, advocates say. It also helps relieve the current strain on the state’s legal aid lawyers, who perform legal services for the poor as a full-time job, according to legal professionals.

Whitney Durand, a Chattanooga lawyer who runs Southeast Tennessee Legal Services, said the need is “astonishing.”

As the pro bono attorney for a woman who won an $860,000 judgment last year against a landlord who illegally evicted her and threw away all her belongings, Mr. Durand said his client “would not have been able to get past first base” without a lawyer.

“Liability can be established in such cases,” Mr. Durand said, “but legal aid just can’t take on every case.”

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