Now more than ever, Tennesseans need assistance with civil legal issues, and the Tennessee Supreme Court Access to Justice Commission is kicking off its annual Help4TNDay celebration on April 8. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic and the tornadoes that ripped through Middle Tennessee in early March, the theme of Help4TNDay 2020 has shifted to Innovation and Responsiveness. Throughout the month of April, the ATJ Commission will promote virtual and telephonic legal clinics and other ways to obtain legal help. It will also release online resources for volunteer attorneys and the general public.
Civil legal questions include issues that arise in family law, employment law, landlord/tenant law, business law, insurance law, estate planning, and other non-criminal law issues. As the pandemic and its impact continue to spread, more people are struggling with legal issues and cannot afford an attorney. Currently, over half of all Tennessee attorneys provide pro bono legal services, which is one of the highest rates in the country. In 2018, the last year for which data is available, 9,539 attorneys provided 640,958 hours of pro bono, an average of 67.19 hours per reporting attorney.
The ATJ Commission has assembled a team of over 50 professionals to develop resources and create and promote pro bono service opportunities. The team includes representatives from law schools, legal service providers, private law firms, and bar associations. Faith leaders, communications experts, and technologists have also been tapped to assist in this initiative.
“We are amazed at the resiliency and dedication our access to justice partners have shown in finding creative ways to deliver services to disadvantaged Tennesseans during these unprecedented times,” said J. William “Bill” Coley, chair of the ATJ Commission. “The Tennessee Supreme Court’s leadership in encouraging courts to be innovative to continue court operations is inspiring. We are using Help4TNDay to encourage the same level of innovation among our partners.”
Attorneys are encouraged to provide pro bono service in a variety of ways throughout the month of April, and the coming months. The damage from the tornados in early March will have long-term implications for Middle Tennesseans. Legal issues arising from the COVID-19 pandemic will continue on past April.
There is already a statewide resource that allows attorneys to volunteer and help clients remotely. TN Free Legal Answers is an online platform that allows people who qualify to email their legal questions to a lawyer, who will respond with free legal advice. The ATJ Commission has partnered with the TN Alliance for Legal Services, the agency that administers the resource, in a coordinated public awareness campaign to promote TN Free Legal Answers to Tennesseans with civil legal problems.
One of the main advantages of TN Free Legal Answers is that volunteer lawyers are able to review questions and prepare their answers before responding. It is easy to sign up and participate. The ATJ Commission encourages attorneys who have not yet volunteered with TN Free Legal Answers to explore the site and take advantage of this remote pro bono opportunity. During Help4TNDay, attorneys are also encouraged to sign on and take questions on a designated day to help “clear the queue” of questions.
East Tennessee Attorneys: Wednesday, April 15
Middle Tennessee Attorneys: Wednesday, April 22
West Tennessee Attorneys: Wednesday, April 29
Attorneys can go to https://tn.freelegalanswers.org/AttorneyFAQ to view an instructional video and learn how to sign up to volunteer.
Many statewide, regional, and local legal aid groups are developing creative ways to connect volunteer lawyers with clients remotely. Volunteer lawyers should contact the legal aid organization(s) that serve their community to find out about remote pro bono opportunities and resources currently being developed. The ATJ Commission has compiled these resources, and they are available at https://justiceforalltn.com/Help4TNDay. Organizations can submit links to resources and virtual events and trainings at the same link.
Lawyers interested in helping victims of the March 2nd tornadoes can volunteer directly through the Tennessee Bar Association at https://www.tba.org/Tornado_Volunteers. Tennessee legal aid organizations and bar associations are working together to coordinate pro bono legal education and support. Volunteers can complete an online form and a representative from one of the legal aid or bar associations will be in touch with the lawyer.
“Tennessee has been a leader in developing online and virtual legal resources,” said Tennessee Supreme Court Justice Connie Clark. “Free Legal Answers was started in Tennessee and now has been taken to the national level through the American Bar Association. The Supreme Court is amazed at the innovation and ingenuity that is accomplished when lawyers, nonprofits, and other groups work together to find solutions.”
If you have a legal question, go to https://tn.freelegalanswers.org/ to see if you qualify and to post your question. In addition to TN Free Legal Answers, there are other statewide online resources for Tennesseans to use to connect with legal information and legal help.
- https://www.help4tn.org/ is a web portal that gives Tennesseans a broad range of legal and social services resources
- https://www.help4tn.org/node/473 has information specific to COVID-19
- https://www.help4tn.org/node/472 has information specific to weather emergencies in response to the Tornadoes in Middle Tennessee
Tennesseans with civil legal issues who do not have internet access can use Tennessee’s free legal advice helpline, 1-844-Help4TN (1-844-435-7486). Simply dial the number to ask a non-criminal question to a licensed Tennessee attorney. During business hours, a call responder will answer the call, take down the caller’s contact information, and schedule a return call from a Tennessee attorney. There are Tennessee attorneys on hand to help Tennesseans age 60 and older with elder law issues.
There are also resources for the legal community.
- https://www.tncourts.gov/Coronavirus has information for judges, policymakers, attorneys, and more
- https://www.tba.org/index.cfm?pg=Pandemic-Resources-for-Tennessee-Lawyers has a number of resources for Tennessee lawyers during the COVID-19 epidemic
The ATJ Commission will release videos and other online resources for volunteer lawyers and the general public concerning legal issues relevant to COVID-19 and disaster relief. Employment law issues such as unemployment, under-employment, and recent federal laws will be covered. Family law issues pertaining to visitation and holidays will be included. Resources for medical personnel and first responders will be developed. There will also be information on how these and other legal issues impact specific types of clients.
These resources will be posted and shared through the ATJ Commission’s social media pages on Facebook and Twitter, @JusticeForAllTN. Links will also be made available at https://justiceforalltn.com/Help4TNDay.
The ATJ Commission will sponsor its first ever completely online training conference, the Tennessee Faith and Justice Summit, on April 21 as part of Help4TNDay. The Tennessee Faith and Justice Summit is a joint partnership with the Beecken Center at Sewanee, the University of the South. It was originally set to be held in-person at Sewanee. Following the outbreak of COVID-19, leadership quickly converted the program to be available live online using Zoom.
The Tennessee Faith and Justice Summit will connect faith communities with legal resources. It will feature a panel presentation on the Intersection of Faith, Justice, and Mental Health. Faith leaders and community partners are invited to attend this free online event. Additional information such as the Summit schedule and registration is available at http://beeckencenter.sewanee.edu/events/tfjs-2020.
The ATJ Commission provides collaborative leadership to create solutions and resources that address and eliminate barriers to justice for all. The Help4TNDay awareness campaign is a joint effort by the Tennessee Supreme Court Access to Justice Commission, the Administrative Office of the Courts, the Tennessee Alliance for Legal Services, and the Tennessee Bar Association. Other partners include Legal Aid of East Tennessee, Legal Aid Society of Middle Tennessee and the Cumberlands, Memphis Area Legal Services, West Tennessee Legal Services, University of Tennessee College of Law, the Arts & Business Council of Greater Nashville, Community Legal Center, Tennessee Justice Center, Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition, University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law, Disability Rights Tennessee, Vanderbilt University Law School, and many others.