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VOL. 121 | NO. 167 | Thursday, August 24, 2006

New Law Augments Legal Representation For Low-Income Tennesseans

By Amy O. Williams

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WORK PRODUCT: Attorney Virginia Alexander of Memphis Area Legal Services (MALS) goes over some paperwork with her client, Dedrick Wrushen. -- Photograph By Amy O. Williams

For many people, solving legal problems might be as simple as consulting an attorney. But for the more than 1 million Tennesseans who live in poverty, finding legal assistance is not that easy.

That's where legal aid programs come in, and the Tennessee Alliance for Legal Services (TALS) is leading the pack.

TALS is a statewide nonprofit organization that works with other groups and individuals to help provide civil legal services for low-income and elderly Tennesseans. One of TALS' primary goals is to increase support for Tennessee legal services programs.

"It's a big relief (to receive legal aid) because it's a lot of stress if you have legal problems and you can't afford (the expense of) an attorney," said Dedrick Wrushen, a client of Memphis Area Legal Services (MALS) who is sorting through some health-related claims.

In pursuit of a cause

TALS was a driving force behind the recent passage of the Tennessee Voluntary Fund for Indigent Civil Representation. Gov. Phil Bredesen signed the legislation into law in May.

"It's a big relief (to receive legal aid) because it's a lot of stress if you have legal problems and you can't afford (the expense of) an attorney."
- Dedrick Wrushen
Client of Memphis Area Legal Services (MALS)

The fund was created by the Tennessee General Assembly and sponsored by State Sen. Curtis Person to be a sustainable resource for legal aid programs across the state. It will be similar to an endowment, and will be run by the state through the Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC). The AOC will collect and distribute the money, which will come from various types of litigation funds, such as restitution, settlement funds, penalties and cy pres awards. Cy pres is a French term that means "so close," or the next best cause, said Erik Cole, executive director of TALS. It is an opportunity for judges, lawyers, mediators and others to provide an alternative settlement, he said.

Cy pres awards generally refer to funds left over from class action lawsuits. The funds become residual for many reasons, such as members of the class failing to submit claims or when class members cannot be located.

Spoils of war

Nashville's Vanderbilt University Law School in 2005 received a $2.9 million endowment as the result of a cy pres award. The award came after a suit filed against Dow Chemical Co. by the Nashville-based law firm Branstetter Stranch & Jennings PLLC on behalf of consumers. The 2005 suit, Lankford v. Dow Chemical, involved the overpricing of products made from synthetic rubber.

During the litigation process, lawyers determined it would be very costly to repay all the consumers represented in the class, whose damages ranged from less than $1 to several hundred dollars. The solution they settled in October that year was a cy pres award to Vanderbilt's litigation program.

Currently, no money has been put into the fund since it is relatively new, but Cole said once the funds begin to come in they will be distributed among the four legal aid programs in Tennessee. Those programs are Legal Aid of East Tennessee, Legal Aid Society of Middle Tennessee and the Cumberlands, West Tennessee Legal Services and MALS.

And MALS could use the extra money. MALS is a nonprofit organization that does not accept payment for its services. It has 14 staff attorneys, six paralegals and some other support staff in its three area offices. The offices - two in Memphis and one in Covington - serve clients in Shelby, Fayette, Tipton and Lauderdale counties.

MALS turns people away every day, said Harrison McIver, executive director.

"We are inundated with requests," McIver said. "It is a challenge we have, that we cannot meet the demand."

The demand amounts to an average of about 75 to 100 calls each day, he said. MALS and other similar aid programs in Tennessee do not handle criminal cases, only civil. Those cases include consumer cases, domestic cases and credit-related problems, among others. As a result of the limited resources, the MALS board of directors is forced to review each case and determine its priority.

"Because of the demand, we give priority to individuals with domestic violence issues or (those involving) children," McIver said.

But money from the new voluntary fund would enable McIver to start thinking of hiring more attorneys and taking on more cases.

One of the reasons TALS pushed for the creation of the fund, Cole said, was the growing number of cy pres decisions being dispersed around the country.

"We were looking to coordinate a state-wide approach," he said.

Determining how much money will go to each organization would depend on the number of people living in poverty in each area, Cole said.

And while he said the legislation is a great thing, it only creates the pot. It will take donations, bequests and other awards to fill it.

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