The Tennessee Supreme Court Justice Bus has now offered free legal services to clients in all three grand divisions – East, Middle and West Tennessee.
“The Justice Bus is a unique opportunity to bring legal services to people where they are,” said Savannah Quintero, Pro Bono Coordinator/Staff to Tennessee Supreme Court Access to Justice Commission. “We are building partnerships in communities across the state, and we think that the bus will go a long way toward making legal services more accessible.”
The American Jobs Center in Chattanooga hosted a free legal clinic on July 21. The Chattanooga Bar Association Young Lawyers Division provided criminal law assistance on expungement cases, while five clients received help with civil legal issues.
“These are people who had recently gotten out of being incarcerated and we were providing civil legal services,” said Mary Frances DeVoe, Pro Bono Attorney at Legal Aid of East Tennessee. “These people were not incarcerated, they were on probation and looking to clean up their legal record to start a new job, start a new life. I love my job, so getting to provide people with free legal services is always a delight for me, but especially people who have a past, like we all do, and who are trying to start over. That’s always a little more rewarding to me, being able to give them a little advice.”
DeVoe is excited about what the future holds for the Justice Bus. One day, she hopes it will be staffed with a full-time attorney.
“The Justice Bus has so many uses for it and I think that’s what’s exciting about it,” said DeVoe. “I work in East Tennessee as an advisor for counties that are super rural, which makes it hard to bring urban resources to rural counties. Not to mention, part of what I run into in clinic coordination is finding places where you can host clinics, and having access to free internet and free parking. A lot of people don’t have access to technology in this area. The Justice Bus is very helpful in literally meeting people where they are.”
The following day, July 22, the Justice Bus visited the Murfreesboro Day Reporting and Community Resource Center for their job and resource fair. The Justice Bus provided general civil legal advice to 10 clients with issues ranging from expungement to family law.
“I think the Justice Bus is a less intimidating environment for people who are on probation or parole, or have prior interactions with the criminal justice system to seek help,” said Sarah Gallagher, Public Information Officer for the Tennessee Department of Corrections (TDOC). “Some people aren’t comfortable walking into a courthouse or interacting with lawyers. It’s a little bit intimidating. I think the Justice Bus provides a very neutral ground for people to go get help without the fear of getting into any sort of trouble.”
Javaun Verge is a Correctional Counselor with TDOC. In her role, she assists clients who have criminal backgrounds with re-entry into the community. This might include help with housing, employment, health care referrals, family assistance and retaining employment.
“I believe a lot of times communication gets blurred, especially when you go from the courts to being on probation, and then being out in the community,” said Verge. “I feel like without the Justice Bus, some people would just be stuck and not have the correct information that they need. A lot of people use legal aid to get their charges expunged, if they qualify. Some people are in a situation where they are getting their licenses back because they are getting help with court costs. It just depends case by case.”
Verge visited the Justice Bus at a job fair in Smyrna a few weeks ago to ensure people in all parts of Rutherford County would have access to it. When it came to Murfreesboro, she was able to talk with clients about its impact.
“I spoke with a gentleman who told me he drove over an hour to get the services here and I feel like with the Justice Bus being so new, that word is spreading fast that they are helping people. I think that it was really beneficial for people not just in our community, but even those people farther out. Really all of Tennessee has benefitted from the Justice Bus,” said Verge.
The Tennessee Supreme Court Access to Justice Commission publicly launched the Tennessee Justice Bus on June 20, 2022. It is a passenger van outfitted with computers, tablets, a printer, internet access, video displays, WiFi, and other office supplies. The Justice Bus allows lawyers and other volunteers to provide on-the-spot access to legal help and meet Tennesseans where they are.
Recent Justice Bus events also include the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition Clinic in Nashville on July 23 and an expungement clinic in Memphis on July 30. Trips to Sullivan, Knox, and Obion counties are scheduled for August.