Georgia chief justice: Too many lack access to lawyers

Georgia chief justice: Too many lack access to lawyers

February 6th, 2014 by Tyler Jett in Local Regional News

NO LAWYERS

These six counties in Georgia have no attorneys, according to state Supreme Court Chief Justice Hugh Thompson:

• Glascock

• Chattahoochee

• Webster

• Clay

• Baker

• Echols

Hugh Thompson

Photo by Associated Press/Times Free Press.

Georgia needs to do a better job of providing lawyers to poor people in rural counties, the state's chief Supreme Court justice says.

Giving his first State of the Judiciary address Wednesday, Chief Justice Hugh Thompson highlighted the lack of attorneys outside the metro Atlanta region, and the number of people who could benefit from a lawyer. Citing a 2008 Committee on Civil Justice study, he said only 9 percent of low-income residents got legal help when they needed it.

"Most of us grew up saying the Pledge of Allegiance at school, in which we promised 'liberty and justice for all,'" said Thompson, who was elected chief justice in May. "I don't believe we ever meant, 'liberty and justice for those who can afford it.'"

Thompson discussed the need for more court interpreters who can help non-English speakers and said local governments should create more special "accountability courts" designed to tackle problems like drug addiction, driving under the influence arrests and mental health issues.

But he spent most of his time talking about the need for more lawyers in poor areas. Citing a University of Georgia study, Thompson said 40 percent of "persistently poor" Southern counties are in Georgia.

The study looked at states stretching from Texas in the west to Virginia in the east. A county is "persistently poor" if, for at least three straight decades, a high percentage of its residents are in poverty ($8,700 a year for one person, $17,000 a year for a family of four, according to 1999 figures cited in the study. For 2014, the figures are $11,670 and $23,850 respectively).

The poorest families are in counties. And yet, Thompson pointed out, most Georgia lawyers live in the five counties that make up the metro Atlanta region. Of 29,317 attorneys active in Georgia in 2012, only 30 percent were based outside of the state's capital.

McCracken Poston, a Ringgold-based attorney, said he couldn't think of a feasible way to provide lawyers for most civil cases. Perhaps, he said, law schools could create programs similar to that of many medical schools: If a student agrees to represent low-income clients for a set period of time, the school will give the student financial aid.

"It's important," Poston said of legal representation. "The establishment of a statewide public defender program was the best thing that happened in a long time in Georgia for people needing help in criminal courts."

Six counties in Georgia have no attorneys. And 62 counties - including Dade in North Georgia - have 10 or fewer attorneys.

Thompson said people in these areas need attorneys to protect "fundamental rights." A woman may need a restraining order against her ex-husband. A wounded soldier may need help getting the disability benefits the government has guaranteed him. Or an elderly couple may need a lawyer to help them fight back when someone has defrauded them out of all their money.

To combat these problems, Thompson said the state relies on two nonprofit firms: the Georgia Legal Services Program and the Atlanta Legal Aid Society. But funding for these groups has dipped almost in half as the country's economy sputtered for the past six years.

The chief justice said the state needs to find a way to give more people legal representation.

"We must guarantee access to justice for all people, as our laws were not made for just a few," Thompson said. "Too many Georgians cannot afford legal representation, and too many go without civil legal services."

Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at tjett@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6476.