Tennessee Supreme Court launches ‘justice bus’

Published 10:06 am Friday, June 24, 2022

The Tennessee Supreme Court Access to Justice Commission publicly launched the Tennessee Justice Bus earlier this week at the Tennessee Supreme Court Building in Nashville. The TN Justice Bus is a mobile law office that brings technology to rural and underserved communities. The TN Justice Bus is a passenger van outfitted with computers, tablets, a printer, internet access, video displays, WiFi, and other office supplies. Lawyers and other volunteers will be able to provide on-the-spot access to legal help and meet Tennesseans where they are.
“In 2009, the Court set up a statewide Access to Justice Commission focused on providing needs to citizens across our state in civil matters who cannot afford legal representation,” said Tennessee Supreme Court Justice Jeff Bivins. “We recognized it as a significant problem across our state and a necessary initiative to focus on to make sure we bring justice to all. As we’ve gone through the past decade, the Court has continued to make access to justice a priority, even with changes in court composition. We stand here today, as a priority, to make sure that our citizens can get access to justice.”
The Commission is joining a small network of other states that have launched justice bus projects in response to natural disasters, to connect with rural citizens, or to bring technology to disadvantaged communities. “It is, in essence, a mobile law office,” said Justice Bivins. “It will provide legal information, allow users to access online resources and host legal clinics in remote areas.”
Metro Nashville and Davidson County General Sessions Judge Ana Escobar joined Justice Bivins in expressing support for the TN Justice Bus. Judge Escobar shared her experience watching litigants who must represent themselves in court try to navigate the judicial system.
“It pains me to see self-represented litigants file in the wrong courts, with the wrong motions or petitions and be denied what they need simply because they did not know what to do or who to ask,” said Judge Escobar. “Oftentimes, these litigants wait weeks and months for their court dates, only to be told they sought justice in the wrong place. This causes frustration and anger with the system. Although they may have a legitimate cause of action, as a judge I cannot tell them where to go to access the justice they need. With the justice bus, it is my hope that some of the self-represented litigants can be heard and respected, and their faith in our legal system will be restored. I can’t wait for the doors of justice to be open for this opportunity.”
Rural Tennesseans face unique obstacles to accessing legal help, legal information, and social services. There are fewer attorneys in rural areas and the closest legal aid office may be one or two counties away. Yet need for early intervention in a legal issue is just as critical in rural Tennessee as it is for suburban and urban locations.
“With the justice bus, with this absolutely wonderful resource moving across our state, with the wonderful partnerships we have across the justice system, including working with workforce development, we give Tennesseans not only an opportunity for legal services, but also an opportunity for legal expungement and opportunities to put themselves back in the workforce,” explained Monty Burks, a member of the Commission and the Director of Faith-Based Initiatives for the Tennessee Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services. “This is an opportunity for workforce development to grow our communities, and to systemically and generationally impact our communities.”
The Commission plans to use the TN Justice Bus to strengthen its partnership with the Tennessee equal justice community. Tennessee’s legal aid providers handle a variety of civil issues such as evictions, debt and credit issues, unfair labor practices, family law and domestic violence, and employment law.
Laura Brown, the Executive Director for the Tennessee Alliance for Legal Services, added, “TALS is thrilled to partner with the AOC on this project. The justice bus will help get the word out through civil legal clinics and help get the word out for Help4TN. Help4TN is a site that provides free legal information to common legal questions. The bus is equipped with WiFi, so folks can use the bus and search for legal answers to questions they have, in addition to attending clinics. Help4TN also showcases free legal answers, where website visitors can leave a question that will then be answered by a licensed Tennessee attorney.”
Former Administrative Office of the Courts Director Deborah Taylor Tate first learned of the justice bus model in 2019 and tirelessly educated funders on how this model can benefit our state. Her advocacy resulted in the AOC receiving a grant in 2021 from the Tennessee Office of Criminal Justice Programs to purchase and outfit the TN Justice Bus.
“When I stand and look at this, I cannot believe it is a reality after about five years of planning,” said Deborah Taylor Tate. “In the 1970s, my mother had a dream very similar to this for young children who were in low income areas. She and her best friend talked the superintendent into giving them an old school bus, ripping out the inside, just like we have, and creating a preschool. All of this was before Head Start, so this idea has been in my head for a long time. Fast forward to a judicial legal conference in Louisville, Ky. and our introduction to the bluegrass justice bus. What is so different about ours is the large amount of partnerships we have created. No other state has the network and partnerships to operate a mobile justice bus like Tennessee.”
The first outing for the TN Justice Bus is scheduled for June 29 in Rutherford County. The TN Justice Bus will take part in an expungement clinic and hiring event in partnership with the American Job Center, TN State Representative Mike Sparks, Belmont College of Law, and the Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc.

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