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Editorial


Front Page - Friday, March 31, 2017

HELP4TN event spotlights domestic violence




Tennessee Supreme Court Justice Cornelia Clark announces HELP4TN Day at the Hamilton County Courthouse. - Photograph by David Laprad

The ravages of domestic abuse had once silenced Lindsey Brown. But on March 21, Brown stood before a gathering of judges, lawyers and other local officials in the rotunda of the Hamilton County Courthouse and spoke about her liberation from violence in confident, unwavering tones.

Brown shared how she had picked up the phone many times to call 911 but had not followed through.

Even after suffering black eyes, lacerations across her face and a multitude of other injuries, she had always placed the phone down and returned to the abuser.

Then came the day she made the call. As Brown picked up the phone, she recalled each painful moment that had brought her to that point.

She saw herself falling in love with a charismatic man and her descent into the nightmare of abuse. She saw herself lying to her parents and friends, leaving a good job. And she saw herself at an optometrist’s office, a crumpled shell of her former self, sitting silently as her boyfriend told the technician a dog had scratched her face.

Brown didn’t know what would happen. But she knew she needed to reach out for help.

Her act of bravery placed her in good hands.

Brown was introduced to the Family Justice Center, an agency of the City of Chattanooga that provides free services for victims of domestic violence. Through the agency’s collaboration with Legal Aid of East Tennessee, Brown secured an order of protection that bought her a year of peace and allowed the healing to begin.

Some of the people who helped Brown were among the assembly at the courthouse. She thanked them for saving her. “Domestic violence is no joke. The stigma is horrific,” she said. “But you helped me to regain my dignity. What you did for me was amazing.”

As Brown spoke, Tennessee Supreme Court Justice Cornelia Clark sat behind her, listening. Clark was in Chattanooga to launch HELP4TN, a series of free legal events taking place throughout Tennessee in March and April. Her colleagues on the Supreme Court were elsewhere in the state attending similar events.

Clark opened the ceremony by speaking about the court’s Access to Justice initiative, launched in 2009 in response to the growing number of people in Tennessee who could not afford an attorney and were left to handle a variety of civil legal matters on their own. The court launched HELP4TN through this effort.

“The ability to receive legal advice can change the lives of families and children in Tennessee,” Clark said. “Since 2010, attorneys in the state have provided more than 3 million hours of pro bono service. That’s more than 500,000 hours and $1 million worth of services each year.”

While Clark applauded the lawyers who represent indigent clients, she said the gap between the available services and the number of Tennesseans who need a lawyer, but cannot afford one, is growing.

To remedy the situation, Clark called on all attorneys to answer the call of fairness and impartiality for every citizen, saying, “A community is only as strong as the justice it can provide its most vulnerable citizens.”

Marcy Eason, an attorney with Miller & Martin in Chattanooga and the chair of the Access to Justice Commission, also spoke about the need for more civil legal services for the poor in Tennessee.

“Based on income, 1.46 million Tennesseans qualify for legal aid. Yet, there are less than 90 civil legal aid staff attorneys in the entire state,” she said. “A legal needs study, conducted in 2014, tells us that 60 percent of the households that qualify for civil legal aid experience some civil legal problem. There’s no way our civil legal aid organizations can meet this growing demand alone. That’s why volunteer attorneys need to step in.”

Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke was present to proclaim Saturday, April 1 HELP4TN Day in the city. Before reading the declaration, he spoke about the nature of justice.

“Justice is not about winning, it’s about everyone having equal access,” he said. “That’s one of the things that make us the greatest country in the world. When we have equal access to justice, we’re all better for it regardless of the outcome.”

Sheri Fox, executive director of Legal Aid of East Tennessee (LAET), also spoke about the nature of justice and what the organization does to help those who need it.

“What does it mean to secure justice? When a legal aid attorney represents a mother who’s being wrongfully evicted from her home, the woman and her children are not rendered homeless,” Fox said. “When an elderly man has fallen victim to identity theft, a Legal Aid of East Tennessee attorney can give him a voice in court and defend him against the injustice.”

Fox also spoke about LAET’s response to the wildfires in Gatlinburg last summer.

“The boots were on the ground to provide food, shelter and clothing, and then the suits were on the ground to help the victims with the many legal issues that arose in the wake of the disaster,” Fox said.

Like Berke, Fox called equal access to justice a fundamental American value, but said it’s not yet a reality due to limited resources.

“Legal Aid of East Tennessee is unable to help 80 percent of the people who are eligible for our assistance and need it,” she said. “That’s why the help of volunteer attorneys like Marcy Eason are critical to our work. They expand our reach.”

Without access to justice, Brown said she might not have received the help she needed. Instead, she stood before the room as an example of the life-changing work attorneys, legal aid organizations and other volunteers who give freely of their time are doing.

“From the bottom of my heart and on behalf of the one in seven women who have been seriously injured by someone they trust – thank you,” she said. “Please keep doing the work you’re doing because it matters.”

To learn more about HELP4TN and to view a list of local legal clinics that are a part of the effort, visit www.help4tn.org.