NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — A Tennessee court initiative to help residents in need of legal aid has found a new way to reach out. On Monday, officials launched the Tennessee Justice Bus — a mobile legal clinic that will travel the state providing free pop-up legal services.
The Justice Bus is a passenger van outfitted with computers and wifi. Lawyers from the state's Access to Justice program will use it to conduct legal clinics and educate the public about free resources for problems such as eviction, child custody and medical debt. Unlike with criminal matters, citizens are not entitled to free legal counsel for civil issues, even though those issues can be difficult to navigate without help.
The Tennessee Supreme Court launched the Access to Justice initiative over a decade ago to meet what it said was an "urgent and tremendous" need for civil legal aid. Over the years, the court has changed its rules to encourage more attorneys to engage in pro bono legal aid and launched free online tools, such as help4tn.org, where residents can find answers to common questions or leave a question to be answered by a licensed Tennessee attorney.
The Justice Bus takes those initiatives a step further, bringing in-person services directly to residents with an emphasis on providing access to people in the most underserved areas of the state. Access to Justice Director Anne-Louise Wirthlin said the initiative has partners in every one of Tennessee's 95 counties through legal aid groups, the courts, and even houses of worship that participate in the initiative's Faith and Justice Alliance.
In fact, the bus's first stop will be the Parkway Baptist Church in Smyrna, where attorneys will conduct an expungement clinic and provide other help. One of the self-serve online resources the bus will promote is a legal wellness check-up. The initiative is designed to help residents identify problems they may not think of as legal issues — for instance a dispute with a landlord over home maintenance — that can fester and become harder to resolve if left unaddressed. The wellness check-up will suggest resources targeted to specific problems, Wirthlin said.
Access to Justice attorneys will take the bus out about three times per month, initially. Eventually, the legal program plans to add a full-time person whose primary responsibility will be the Justice Bus, Wirthlin said. Tennesseans can follow the bus through the social media handle @JusticeBusTN to find out where it will stop.