2017 was a year of firsts for the Tennessee Supreme Court Access to Justice Initiative and the Access to Justice Commission. The inaugural #Help4TNDay, a day of public service, took place on April 1st. The Supreme Court sponsored this public awareness campaign to highlight existing pro bono opportunities and the agencies or groups that serve vulnerable Tennesseans throughout the year. The initiative expands upon the “4ALL” campaign created by Buck Lewis during his tenure as President of the Tennessee Bar Association (2008-2009). The “4ALL” campaign was launched to bring much-needed legal services to Tennesseans of modest means and received state and national recognition for its enhancement of the delivery of pro bono legal services across the state.
The Supreme Court kicked off the #Help4TNDay initiative with five simultaneous press conferences in five different cities. Over 50 free legal clinics, Know Your Rights presentations, free CLE trainings, and attorney-of-the-day programs took place over a four-week period surrounding #Help4TNDay. The initiative garnered press coverage of access to justice and pro bono programs in Tennessee estimated to be worth over one million dollars.
The Tennessee Faith and Justice Alliance (TFJA) sponsored the first Pro Bono and Faith Days, #PBFDays, in October as part of Celebrate Pro Bono Month. #PBFDays focused on recruiting new TFJA partners and strengthening existing TFJA partnerships. It highlighted the impact that houses of worship have on the lives of its members and community through helping with their civil legal issues. Houses of worship were asked to share information on the civil legal needs gap, civil legal resources, and pro bono opportunities. They were further asked to incorporate the messaging into their formal programming or host an event for their members. Eighteen events including faith leader trainings, expungement clinics, and civil legal advice clinics were held during #PBFDays.
#Help4TNDay and #PBFDays illustrated the on-going need for public awareness on civil legal needs, the services provided by civil legal aid providers, and the necessity to support these organizations and programs. Marcy Eason, Chair of the Commission, stated, “There are more than one million Tennesseans with civil legal needs without the means to pay for legal services, and without direction on where they can seek critical legal help. These two significant and unique projects bring attention to that need, and to the many different ways attorneys and organizations can help. Much credit is due to the Supreme Court, and the ATJ staff, who brought these events to life.” The Commission recognized the importance of continuing this discussion and positioned itself as the statewide coordinating arm for communications on legal aid, pro bono, self-represented litigants’ resources, and access to justice stakeholders.
The Commission adopted a Statewide Communications Plan, with input from its access to justice partners and Voices for Civil Justice. Voices for Civil Justice is a national communications initiative that taps the awareness-raising power of the media to spotlight the critical role of civil legal aid in assuring fairness for all in the justice system. This is the first instance the Commission has taken a strategic look at statewide communications and public awareness surrounding access to justice.
An exciting and much-anticipated development happened when the Tennessee Alliance for Legal Services (TALS) launched the Legal Wellness Checkup. The Legal Wellness Checkup was created to help Tennesseans figure out parts of their lives where legal help could make things better and give them resources to help solve those issues. It is an online interview and that gives the user a report at the end showing their legal risk areas. The report links to free booklets, videos, and legal forms to help the user avoid or solve legal problems.
The Legal Wellness Checkup was made possible because TALS was able to host an Equal Justice Works Fellow, who was sponsored by International Paper Company. Kirsten Jacobson became one of the first Equal Justice Works Fellows in Tennessee in years. Kirsten’s work on the Legal Wellness Checkup will prove to be instrumental to the Commission and has already been incorporated into faith leader training events sponsored by the TFJA.
The Commission has compiled information as part of an annual pro bono report since 2011, yet the 2016 Pro Bono Report marked the first instance where personal stories of access to justice leaders’ on their memorable pro bono experiences were included. The Stories of Pro Bono is an on-going project to gather short, relatable stories about leaders’ first pro bono experiences through a brief online survey. The project is intended to inspire pro bono participation by Tennessee attorneys. Stories will continue to be collected and used in future communications and on social media.
The 2016 Pro Bono Report also saw the most participation by law firms since the report was first conducted. Over 100 law offices provided information on the pro bono work done by their attorneys during 2016. Over 900 attorneys from the reporting law firms performed over 44,000 hours of pro bono work, helping more than 3,000 clients in 2016. Forty of these firms report that they have a pro bono policy in place and 59 of them indicate that attorneys from their offices have been recognized by the Tennessee Supreme Court as Attorneys for Justice for their pro bono work.
“The Supreme Court is extremely proud of the Commission and all of our access to justice partners’ work to expand access to justice in Tennessee in 2017,” added Justice Cornelia Clark, Tennessee Supreme Court Liaison to the Commission. “We look forward to the upcoming projects, the other ‘firsts’ planned for 2018.” These other “firsts” currently in the development stages include a video contest for law students on their pro bono experiences, giving them an opportunity to share their stories of pro bono.
A second initiative is to establish ten court kiosks in ten different types of courts throughout the state, designed to give self-represented litigants in the courthouse immediate access to legal information. The court kiosks, a laptop and printer, will link the user to local and statewide civil legal resources such as legal aid offices and court-approved forms. The kiosks will use the statewide Help4TN web portal, www.Help4TN.org, to connect the users to relevant resources. Help4TN provides legal information to low income and disadvantaged Tennesseans and has become the primary resource to refer Tennesseans seeking assistance and information on civil legal needs.
The Commission hopes to carry the momentum it gained in 2017 into its next strategic planning process in March 2018. The Commission is seeking input from its partners on unaddressed needs it should take into consideration and how it should focus its efforts to be most effective over the next two years. For more information, contact the Access to Justice Coordinator at ATJInfo@tncourts.gov.