The belief that indigent and low income individuals should have equal access to our court systems has led to grass roots efforts by Washington County, Tennessee, lawyers to connect with the general public. The Saturday Clinic, General Sessions Court project, and Pro Se Domestic Project have proved successful and continue to grow and expand throughout the state.
Tony Seaton of the Law Offices of Tony Seaton, PLLC along with trial lawyers McKenna Cox and Matt Bolton started the initiatives in October 2009. After learning to be a trial lawyer through pro bono work, Mr. Seaton had a desire to help people who cannot afford the legal services they need. Mr. Seaton now volunteers his expertise to those who cannot afford legal services at least eight hours per month, which he considers “one of the most rewarding things I have accomplished as a lawyer.”
The Saturday Clinic establishes a set place where clients can find lawyers and paralegals ready to offer free and basic advice about bankruptcy, collection matters, divorce, eviction, foreclosure, and repossession. The Saturday Clinic is open for three hours, in which time approximately 40 clients are helped. This means that about 2,000 individuals have been helped during the Saturday Clinic so far.
Going to court without representation can be frightening because of the unknown, but in the Washington County (TN) General Sessions Court, attorneys from the Washington County Bar Association make it a little less nerve-wracking. A group of attorneys volunteer to speak with any unrepresented defendants who want their advice. They usually speak with 15-20 individuals each month.
The number of pro se litigants (litigants who represent themselves) in Washington County is high and rising. A partnership between attorneys and judges has established a monthly pro se domestic docket day. A domestic docket with many pro se litigants forces judges to play a balancing game of assisting without offering advice. Attorneys appear in court on the scheduled pro se docket day and assist the pro se litigants, benefitting all parties.
All of these initiatives fulfill a consistent need for pro bono services. Washington County serves as a model for counties across Tennessee. Everyone benefits from each of the projects and the trial lawyers are as eager to help as the individuals are to receive free assistance.
Mr. Seaton is on the statewide Tennessee Supreme Court Access to Justice Commission and chairman of the subcommittee to establish free legal clinics throughout Tennessee. The commission has greatly contributed to the development of a telephone line offering legal information and referrals (1-888-alegalz), an email system for legal questions (www.onlinetnjustice.org), and a website for general legal information and court-approved forms (www.justiceforalltn.org). Like the initiatives, all of these new services are free of charge.
Attorney Seaton recently showed up in court to volunteer free legal services as part of the Access to Justice Initiative. A woman was being sued for credit card debt despite having fulfilled her obligations under a mutually agreed upon payment plan. The creditor attorney acknowledged that his company often sues even if there is a payment plan. Mr. Seaton pointed out that the judge would be equally as upset as his client if this case was presented, and the creditor attorney agreed to dismiss the claim.
“The next day I received one of the warmest and sincerest thank-you notes that I have ever received,” says Mr. Seaton. “It reminded me of why we do what we do. We touch lives and serve people, partially out of a sense of obligation to our profession and our community. Our state Supreme Court has initiated, encouraged, and enabled us to join hands to provide these programs.”