Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, December 2, 2022

Community Foundation to study local civil legal system

Community Foundation President and CEO Maeghan Jones says the Eviction Prevention Initiative has taught the agency many things about the importance of equal access to justice. - Photo courtesy of the Community Foundation of Greater Chattanooga

The Community Foundation of Greater Chattanooga, in partnership with The Pew Charitable Trusts, Hamilton County General Sessions Court and several city, county and national partners, has launched a project to study the civil legal system in Hamilton County and throughout Tennessee.

These entities will work together to identify ways to facilitate the fair and efficient administration of justice – particularly in disputes involving consumer debt – and offer ideas to address various problems facing plaintiffs and defendants who enter local courthouses.

Pew, a nonpartisan public policy organization, will work with the Community Foundation to collect and share eviction and debt collection data on civil courts systems and identify areas for improvement.

“Civil courts across the country have not kept pace with the evolving needs of the people who use them,” says Erika Rickard, director of Pew’s civil legal system modernization project. “But several counties and states are taking important strides to make the civil legal system more accessible, open and equitable, including Hamilton County.

“We’re looking forward to partnering with policymakers, judges, members of the private bar and philanthropic organizations in Hamilton County in the work ahead.”

Building on the work of the Eviction Prevention Initiative, the Community Foundation will collaborate with city, county and court officials, foundation and nonprofit partners, and local and national consultants.

Pew will begin with a period of data gathering and research, which will be used to shape policy recommendations for local and state governments.

Community Foundation President and CEO Maeghan Jones says the organization’s partnership with Pew builds on work that began more than two years ago, when the foundation and its partners came together at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic to help families facing the threat of eviction.

“The Eviction Prevention Initiative has helped hundreds of families avoid homelessness. It’s also taught us a lot about our civil courts and the importance of everyone having equal access to justice,” adds Jones.

Hamilton County General Sessions Judge Alex McVeagh, who also serves as vice chair of the Tennessee Supreme Court’s Access to Justice Commission, says courthouses can be places of “solutions and innovation.”

“Hamilton County has already established itself as a leader in problem-solving court programs like our Drug Recovery Court, Mental Health Court, medical debt online dispute resolution program and eviction diversion initiative.

“Our partnership with Pew will help us gather more data about the parties and cases that are litigated in our court so policymakers might be able to identify and implement solutions to eliminate certain barriers to justice.”

The Community Foundation has been convening city and county officials to brainstorm improvements that might be possible within the local civil justice system. Former U.S. Senator Bob Corker attended one such session.

“Many of our citizens are under constant financial stress and with one unforeseen hardship can find themselves homeless or on the verge of homelessness,” says Corker, referring to the eviction proceedings that are often adjudicated in civil courtrooms. “I look forward to reviewing the data and seeing the recommendations.”

As part of its civil justice reform work, the Community Foundation will engage Emily O’Donnell, former city attorney and Eviction Prevention Initiative co-founder, to consult on strategy and project development.

Source: Community Foundation of Greater Chattanooga