The Tennessee Supreme Court’s Access to Justice Commission has released an extensive study showing that attorneys in Tennessee are providing more free and reduced-rate legal services to those in need.
The report shows that in 2011 the number of hours that attorneys in Tennessee volunteered their services nearly tripled from 2009. The report details significant increases in hours served during the last two years for which data is available.
“This is exactly what we had hoped to see,” said Buck Lewis, chairman of the Access to Justice Commission. “The profession is stepping up and contributing more than ever before to assist those in need of legal services. It is extremely encouraging to see this level of participation.”
The report provides 2011 data that shows 9,736 attorneys practicing in Tennessee provided 804,961 hours of pro bono, an average of nearly 83 hours per attorney. Pro bono is a Latin term that means “for the public good.” Reporting pro bono activity is encouraged, but not required by the Supreme Court. There were a total of 21,111 attorneys licensed in Tennessee in 2011, which means that 46% reported participating in pro bono activity.
These results compare with 2009, when only 18% of attorneys reported pro bono work. This demonstrates a 173% increase in pro bono hours reported from 2009 to 2011.
The Access to Justice Commission has established a goal of 50% of all licensed attorneys providing at least 50 hours of pro bono service per year. The Supreme Court in February announced a recognition program to honor the efforts of those attorneys who provide more than 50 hours of service each year.
Attorneys serve pro bono hours in a variety of ways, including volunteering at organized legal clinics, providing legal services at a free or reduced rate, offering legal advice online at OnlineTNJustice.org, or assisting those in their local or worship community with legal questions.
“The Supreme Court considers access to justice for all citizens one of its highest priorities,” said Justice Janice M. Holder, the Supreme Court’s liaison to the Access to the Justice Commission. “Pro bono work is critical to meeting the legal needs of Tennesseans. It not only provides a much needed service but also helps strengthen communities. When legal needs are met, our citizens can refocus on their jobs and families.”
While the Constitution of the United States guarantees legal representation to those charged in a criminal case, no such guarantee exists for civil legal cases – such as bankruptcy; employment, contract or landlord issues; and custody cases. If left unresolved without assistance, these situations many times can lead to more serious legal problems for the clients. It is estimated that 1 million Tennesseans are in need of civil legal aid and do not have the resources to pay for it.
The Tennessee Supreme Court announced its Access to Justice campaign in 2008 and subsequently created the Access to Justice Commission. The commission is a response to a growing legal-needs gap in Tennessee as indigent and working-poor families face more legal problems caused by unemployment, predatory loans, uninsured medical bills, domestic violence, evictions and foreclosures.
The commission is tasked with developing and implementing strategic plans for improving access to justice in Tennessee to include educating the public on the need for legal representation to meet the ideal of equal justice under the law, identifying the priorities to meet the need of improved access to justice, and making recommendations to the Supreme Court of projects and programs necessary for enhancing access to justice.