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Legal Aid of East Tennessee: Fifty-Fifty Plan for Equal Justice

LAET 50/50The recently completed Tennessee Civil Legal Needs Study was a limited study that attempted to get an empirical handle on the level of unmet legal needs of low income Tennesseans. Resources required that it be a telephone survey. As such, the needs in the areas of family violence, limited English speaking persons, and homeless persons were under measured. Still, this study documents that Tennessee is failing to provide access to our Justice System and the Rule of Law to the vast majority of our low-income neighbors.

A 1991 study revealed that with all resources, we were meeting from 15 to 20 percent of the civil legal needs of low-income people. This 2003/04 study documents that we are losing the battle. Today, Tennessee is meeting less than 10 percent of the civil legal needs of our low-income population.

By far, the primary providers of civil legal assistance in Tennessee are the four federally funded legal aid programs, including Legal Aid of East Tennessee. These programs also facilitate and fund the majority of attorney pro bono efforts. As the federal commitment to equal justice has declined (40% cut in ‘82, 25% cut in ‘95, census based reductions in 2004), Tennessee legal aid programs have sought, and LAET has obtained, other funding.

As an example, the former Knoxville Legal Aid Society (now LAET) had one funder in 1982, four funders in 1993, and 30 funding streams in 2001 before the merging of programs in East Tennessee. Currently LAET has 36 different funding sources, but due to funding reductions in the last two years has seen staffing levels necessarily decline. The hard fact is that grants are most often temporary. When we get a new one, we may be replacing one that has ended. In the best-case scenario, we can increase services for a time. The ebb and flow of grants and services causes a hardship on clients, staff and the community. Too often, we are all just getting comfortable with a service level when it cycles away. This means that a tremendous effort must go into finding both new dollars and replacement dollars in order to maintain, and hopefully grow, services.

LAET has done a relatively good job at this in view of the reduced resources from Legal Services Corporation and Tennessee IOLTA. We have maintained services, and, in some communities, have actually increased service levels somewhat.

It is important to note that while the dollars have been critical, changes in Legal Services Corporation directives, and in some cases state or federal law, have made it more difficult or costly to obtain client relief. For example, the required merger of programs in East Tennessee cost LAET approximately $125,000. These costs had to be met out of program resources. Changes in domestic violence penalties affecting the ability of offenders to possess firearms have resulted in more contested or litigated (i.e. resource consuming) Orders of Protection cases.

Today, LAET faces the greatest fiscal challenge since 1982 to meeting the needs of low-income families. In spite of being incredibly efficient and effective, LAET will exhaust cash reserves this year and likely face further staff reductions without significantly increased revenues.

It is my opinion that LAET cannot maintain let alone increase services with a total reliance on transient grants and the fickle nature of politics.

Equal justice must be apolitical and it must be real now.

We lawyers know intellectually that we are responsible for ensuring it. We can run, but we cannot hide from this truth. Thus, the challenge of the Fifty-Fifty Plan is to provide us lawyers with the opportunity to truly guarantee access and real legal assistance to low-income families with critical legal problems.

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