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Editorial


Front Page - Friday, April 3, 2020

Tennessee Supreme Court takes steps to assist attorneys, legal system during COVID-19 crisis




The Tennessee Supreme Court has filed several orders and modified policies to help attorneys navigate the COVID-19 pandemic and mitigate its impact.

While courts across the state are open, some in-person court proceedings have been suspended through April 30. The court has filed orders or modified policies relating to payments for attorneys providing indigent representation, continuing legal education, requirements for in-person proceedings and the use of audio and video technologies.

“Judges, attorneys, court clerks and everyone across the court system are working hard to keep cases moving forward. The legal system cannot just stop,” Tennessee Supreme Court Chief Justice Jeff Bivins says. “The amount of innovation we are seeing is incredible. Judges and lawyers are holding hearings, meetings and other proceedings via Zoom and other tools.

“We recognize and appreciate that this crisis is impacting many in the court system, including attorneys – especially those that provide legal representation for indigent Tennesseans. We appreciate this work, now more so than ever.”

All of the Supreme Court’s orders relating to COVID-19, as well as orders, memos and policies filed by local courts and other resources, can be found on www.tncourts.gov/coronavirus. Attorneys can utilize the page for the most up-to-date information and orders from courts across Tennessee.

Appointed counsel

The Administrative Office of the Courts is charged with running the indigent representation fund program, which processes up to 900 claims for payment a day and over 100,000 a year. To help expedite payments to attorneys, the Supreme Court has amended Rule 13 to raise the automatic approval rate from $199 to $400. In addition, the AOC is taking action on the approximately 850 claims in the system awaiting judicial approval.

“The chief reiterated ... [during] a conference call to judges the importance of getting those claims approved ASAP so attorneys can be paid immediately,” AOC Director Deborah Taylor Tate says. “The AOC staff is contacting each judge that has not utilized ACAP yet and either signing them up immediately or accepting alternative methods of sign-off.”

Under the current language of Rule 13, attorneys do not have to wait for a case to end to enter a claim into ACAP. If a case has reached the cap amount, or most of the work has been completed, an attorney may decide to file the claim now to expedite payment.

The attorney can only file one claim per case, however, and cannot file a second claim once the case is closed. The AOC also recommends all attorneys using ACAP sign up for direct deposit, which can expedite the receipt of payment by over a week compared to receiving a paper check.

The AOC implemented ACAP – a new payment system – in February 2018. Under the previous system, the processing of claims often ran between 45 to 60 days. Several months after ACAP came online, claims processing dropped to about 35 days and is now about 25 days in the first quarter of 2020, a 25% drop in the last several months.

Continuing legal education for 2019-20

Another major step that will assist all attorneys across Tennessee is the relaxation of the in-person continuing legal education requirements. The Supreme Court filed orders allowing all required continuing legal education for 2019 and 2020 to be done through distance learning.

Under Supreme Court rules, only eight of the required 15 hours of yearly CLE can be achieved through distance learning and the remainder is required to be live, in-person training, which can be more expensive and require travel. The recent orders allow all remaining 2019 and 2020 CLE to be earned through distance learning.

Suspension of rules that inhibit use of technology

In addition, any Tennessee state or local rule, criminal or civil, that impedes a judge’s or court clerk’s ability to utilize available technologies to limit in-person contact is suspended through Thursday, April 30.

“We are encouraging everyone in the legal community to think outside the box and be innovative whenever possible,” Bivins says. “We need to be accommodating and flexible wherever we can. We are learning day-by-day, even hour-by-hour, how to best work under these circumstances.”

Board of Professional Responsibility proceedings

The Supreme Court issued an order March 27 suspending Board of Professional Responsibility proceedings and extending deadlines through April 30.

The Board of Professional Responsibility is open and hearings and other proceedings may be conducted by telephone, video conference or other means. Also, the board might respond on an emergency basis as needed.

Time periods and deadlines set forth in Tennessee Supreme Court Rule 9, Sections 10.4 (bar cards), 10.5 and 10.6 (non-payment delinquency notices, fees and suspension) and Rule 43 section 15 (IOLTA delinquency notices, fees and suspension) are extended through April 30.

Administrative Office of the Courts open

The Administrative Office of the Courts is open, fully functioning and will continue to operate.

“AOC staff across every division has been working around the clock since March 13 to secure new equipment, expand bandwidth, roll-out new technology, field questions from courts, change policies and problem-solve,” Tate says. “Our mission to ensure the efficient administration of justice has never been more important and we are 100% dedicated to working through this crisis.”