Tennessee: Free legal advice available Saturday

Tennessee: Free legal advice available Saturday

April 3rd, 2009 by Monica Mercer in Local Regional News

Have a legal problem but can't afford a lawyer?

It's a common dilemma in Tennessee, legal professionals say, with many of the "working poor" across the state still making too much money to qualify for federally funded legal aid services.

Help for those in legal limbo also is tight - Legal Aid of East Tennessee, a private organization that takes on only the most serious cases for those living at or below federal poverty levels - is able to meet just 5 percent to 10 percent of actual need in civil legal matters, officials said.

If you go:

* What: Legal Advice Clinic

* Where: Brainerd Recreation Center, 1010 N. Moore Road, Chattanooga

* When: 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday

* Cost: Free

"There is so much need out there," said Nancy Pagano, pro-bono project director for Legal Aid of Tennessee.

To help fill the gap, more than 40 Chattanooga attorneys will host a free "legal advice clinic" on Saturday to bring awareness to the problem - and to also get anyone with a legal question on the right track.

An initiative of the Tennessee Bar Association, the clinic is not offering full-blown legal services. Rather, the lawyers on hand simply will answer questions and advise people of the next steps they can take if they are experiencing troubles with anything from consumer issues to family law and tenant/landlord disputes.

Unlike local pro-bono clinics in the past where certain groups, such as the elderly or those at certain income levels, have been targeted, Saturday's clinic is the first in Chattanooga open to everyone.

"It's the perfect time for people to come and find out what is and isn't the law," Ms. Pagano said.

Similar clinics are taking place on Saturday in communities across the state as the Tennessee Bar Association continues its goal of educating lawyers and the public on the "urgent need for pro bono legal services."

The lack of resources makes a strong case for more private attorneys to donate their time, Ms. Pagano said. She noted that Legal Aid of Tennessee's federal funding restricts them from helping those who technically are not living in poverty but still could never afford to pay for legal services on their own.

The Tennessee Supreme Court also is highlighting the issue this year, announcing new guidelines today to help Tennessee lawyers more easily donate their time. Among the new ethics rules is the Supreme Court's encouragement for every lawyer to perform at least 50 hours a year in free legal services.

"It's a strong signal from our highest court" that pro bono work is a critical need in the state, Tennessee Bar Association President Buck Lewis said.

Hamilton County Circuit Court Judge Jeff Hollingsworth, who will be at Saturday's clinic, said he regularly sees the difficulties people must go through when they cannot afford legal representation. People who represent themselves, he added, are common in his courtroom.

"I think a lot of people are not pursuing legitimate legal claims because they don't have the money," Mr. Hollingsworth said. "It prevents a lot of people from getting the relief they're entitled to."