Discover the Latest Innovations and Lessons Learned in Rule of Law and Legal Empowerment Projects
A few years ago I read a report by USIP on Local Justice in Southern Sudan. While I was more familiar with the role judges and lawyers played in access to justice programs, I was intrigued to learn that church authorities were often a more trusted source for people to turn to in South Sudan. “Church authorities are an outlet for peaceful resolution of cases, from marital disputes to serious crime…The churches are generally extremely powerful institutions and their leaders are prominent in the governance and politics of counties or states. In Wau, the Catholic Church is said to be more influential than the state government.”
From my understanding, donors can be uneasy about working with churches to implement rule of law and access to justice programs. But I can’t help but wonder whether we’re missing out on working with a partner that may be instrumental in changing the necessary power structure and culture needed to make rule of law reform effective. With that said, coming across this program that provides free legal services to church members in the US was an interesting one. The access to justice program recognizes that courts aren’t the go-to choice for low-income residents and it fills an information and legal services gap by working with a trusted source in the community. Check out the story below!
When Grace Liverman, 66, needed to write a will, she didn’t know where to turn. So she called her pastor at Hamilton United Methodist Church in Nashville. Liverman, who suffers from lupus and other health issues, didn’t know it, but the church had recently begun participating in a pilot program that provides attorneys to needy members at no cost. An attorney came to her home and helped her draft a will. “I was totally depressed and stressed out, not knowing what was going to happen,” Liverman said. “It was like a miracle, almost, that someone would do this for me.”
Tennessee’s faith-based initiative is unusual compared to most legal aid programs across the country because it recognizes that many people who could use an attorney’s help would never go to a legal aid clinic even at their house of worship. That’s because they don’t recognize their problem as a legal one. “People show up every day at churches and synagogues and mosques, and they may not ask for legal help. They may need food assistance. But often there is an underlying legal problem,” said Tennessee Supreme Court Justice Connie Clark, who helped the faith-based initiative get off the ground. “We realized we can help more people by going to where they are already going for help.”
The Tennessee Alliance for Legal Services estimates there are approximately 1 million low-income Tennesseans in need of civil legal help. Although there are no good national numbers, the Legal Services Corp., which funds legal aid clinics around the country, estimates that few low-income people get the legal assistance they need. In criminal cases, defendants are entitled to an attorney and the state appoints someone if they cannot afford it. But there is no such provision in civil cases. That means people in need of legal help to fight eviction, settle issues with creditors, file for divorce or even fight for custody of their children must pay for an attorney on their own or make do without.
“The whole system is built on the assumption that everybody has lawyers, and almost nobody does,” Richard Zorza said. Zorza is an advocate for the Access to Justice movement. Access to Justice commissions exist in 27 states and are being considered in six more, according to the National Center for State Courts. In Tennessee, that has included changing the rules to make it easier for retired attorneys to provide free services, developing a toll-free legal hotline and posting online videos about navigating the justice system.