Advocates for equal justice vowed to step up services Tuesday in Chattanooga as President Donald Trump's proposed budget threatens to cut federal programs for low-income people.
Legal Services of East Tennessee has 28 attorneys stretched across 26 counties to provide representation for people who can't afford to fight landlords, consumer scams, abusive relationships or wrongful foreclosures in civil courts.
"In civil cases, you are not entitled to a lawyer except in very rare situations," Executive Director Sheri Fox said Tuesday. "It's not a political issue; it's a fairness and justice issue. Your right to access the courts shouldn't depend on money."
Released earlier this month, Trump's budget would abolish the Legal Services Corp., a federal program created in 1974 that funds several civil aid programs in cities nationwide. About 49 percent of Legal Services of East Tennessee's budget comes from that program, Fox said.
"If half of our budget is gone, that leaves us without the ability to help even more folks," Fox said. "In other words, more people will be wrongfully evicted from our homes, more of our senior citizens will not be able to get benefits, more women will be left in abusive, violent relationships because we won't have an attorney available to help with an order of protection, and more people will lose their automobiles for wrongful foreclosure. And can you get to work without a car? No."
Fox said her organization resolved 6,102 cases for veterans, senior citizens, domestic violence victims and others in 2016 on an unaudited budget of about $5.2 million. When her employees won, indigent clients walked away with money in their pockets to spend on groceries, gas and housing in the community, she said. But with a limited number of attorneys and volunteers, Legal Services of East Tennessee can only reach so many people in need.
"The need is increasing and it is not 100 percent met," she said. "We cannot represent 80 percent of the people who are eligible for our help."
Fox was one of four speakers, including Tennessee Supreme Court Justice Cornelia Clark, who promoted a solution Tuesday in Hamilton County Circuit Court: free legal advice clinics that begin April 1 across the state. That Saturday, Legal Aid of East Tennessee will sponsor an event at the Chattanooga Housing Authority at 301 N. Holtzclaw Ave. from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
About 1.5 million people in Tennessee qualify for civil legal aid, said attorney Marcia Eason of Miller & Martin.
"That's an astronomical number," Eason said. "A 2014 study shows us 60 percent of those households who qualify also experience some kind of civil legal problem."
All told, an estimated 300,000 people are living at or below 125 percent of the poverty line in the 26 counties covered by Legal Services of East Tennessee, which includes Chattanooga, Knoxville and Johnson City. That comes out to $37,968.75 for a family of four or $17,500 for an individual, Fox said.
"Then add on domestic violence victims, veterans and senior citizens," she said.
Before the conference Tuesday, Fox pointed to another 2015 study that said every dollar invested in civil legal aid had a financial return of $11.
"When we help people avoid homelessness, that decreases the cost of services we provide to our communities," she said.
In Chattanooga alone, she said, it helped support 110 jobs.
Contact staff writer Zack Peterson at email@example.com or 423-757-6347. Follow him on Twitter @zackpeterson918.