Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, December 5, 2014

More than half of low-income Tennesseans face civil legal problems

A study commissioned by the Tennessee Supreme Court Access to Justice (ATJ) Commission and the Tennessee Alliance for Legal Services (TALS), with the support of the Tennessee Bar Association, has found that more than 60 percent of vulnerable Tennesseans face a significant civil legal need.

The goal of the study was to examine the effectiveness of delivering legal assistance to those in need. The study showed that only 25 percent of the respondents were aware of resources to help find a lawyer, and even fewer knew where to find free legal services. Less than 40 percent sought any help pursuing a legal recourse at all, and a third of those decided to navigate the system on their own.

“Civil legal needs can consume a person’s life and their family’s lives as well,” said Justice Cornelia A. Clark, the Tennessee Supreme Court’s liaison to the ATJ Commission. “The issues relate to housing, health care, utilities, and financial well-being – all needs at the most fundamental level.”

The study surveyed over 1,400 Tennesseans who are considered low-income or impoverished, with low-income being defined as a family of four earning $29,812 or less annually. A similarly sized impoverished family would make $23,850 or less per year.

Civil legal problems most cited by those answering the survey include conflicts with creditors, landlord-tenant issues, problems obtaining or paying for health care, and concerns regarding government benefits.

“We have many ways of providing services to those in need,” said Douglas Blaze, chair of the ATJ Commission. “We hope this study will help lead us to the most effective way to make those services available. We want to thank the Ansley Fund of the Frist Foundation, Buck Lewis of the Access to Justice Commission, Justice Frank Drowota, and the Tennessee Alliance for Legal Services for making this study possible.”

The study found that those most severely impacted by legal issues were the poorest, the youngest, and minorities. The study also highlighted the fact that the most commonly reported problems were not always the most disruptive to people’s lives. For example, medical bills and health insurance were frequent problems, but were not as disruptive as caring for a child after the breakup of a marriage – a less commonly mentioned problem.

Respondents most often cited resignation to their situation as a reason for not seeking help. Many also feared that their situation could get worse if they attempted to fight for any legal recourse.

The full ATJ Commission is expected to review the study in detail at its next quarterly meeting in December, and will then develop a plan for how to address the results. The last study of its kind in Tennessee was conducted in 2003.

“When compared with the 2003 study, the 2014 report indicates roughly the same number of civil legal issues experienced by low-income and impoverished Tennesseans,” said Ann Pruitt, executive director of TALS. “Our challenge will continue to be to let people know that legal assistance is available, and that receiving help really does have the potential to create a better outcome for them.”

Financial support for the study was provided by a grant from the Ansley Fund of the Frist Foundation.

Source: Supreme Court of Tennessee