top of page

What does “access to justice” mean? Why does it matter?

Updated: 5 days ago

Part 1 of 3


The 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution establishes a right to due process under the law for every American. But does a right available to everyone on paper truly exist in practice if the tools required to exercise it are only available to a select few? The answer is no. A 21st-century justice system must ensure that the law is open to and equally applied to all, regardless of one’s wealth or ability. 

 

If you get sued, you are supposed to be properly informed by the court about the charges being made against you ahead of time. This is so that you can defend yourself in a fair trial if you disagree with the claims being made. Unfortunately, the method by which civil defendants are notified of their trial in Tennessee is deeply flawed.  

 

Barriers to equitable justice are tragically common in the Tennessee General Sessions Court, which is the lowest civil court in Tennessee. It deals mostly with civil claims of up to $25,000, as well as eviction cases. Civil suits under $25,000 are often referred to as “small claims”, but that term can be deceptive. A judgment for even a fraction of that amount can be ruinous for litigants below a certain income level. 

 

A recently released report by the National Center for Access to Justice in March 2024 ranks Tennessee as one of the worst states in terms of low-income individuals’ ability to respond to consumer lawsuits, consistent with the Tennessee Justice Center’s findings.  

 

The good news is that Tennessee judges, clerks, and attorneys are keenly aware that archaic systems in the General Sessions Courts, particularly those that govern how lawsuits are initiated and responded to, are causing problems at all levels of the civil legal system and are sorely in need of updates.  

 

TJC is working alongside the Tennessee Bar Foundation and teams of dedicated court stakeholders to remove these barriers to civil justice, starting at the point of entry for most people into the court system – the court summons forms themselves. 

 

How are court forms an access to justice issue? 

The General Sessions is distinct among U.S. state courts in that the entirety of the lawsuit process is contained on a single double-sided paper form, called the “civil warrant”, or “detainer warrant” in evictions cases.  

 

Plaintiffs, defendants, judges, clerks, sheriffs, attorneys, and notary publics all use this one form at different points in the lawsuit process, which has caused the page to become very cluttered over the decades. With so many visual elements competing for the reader’s attention, it can be extremely difficult for a defendant to tell what information on the summons is important for them to know. 

 

To make matters worse, the warrants are covered in archaic and confusing legal language that was originally written in the 1820s and has been only minimally modified since Tennessee gained statehood two centuries ago. It is nearly unreadable by non-lawyers today. 

 

Who gets left behind? 

Self-represented litigants (SRLs) are parties in a lawsuit who are not represented by a lawyer. SRLs, also known as pro se litigants, make up the vast majority of defendants in Tennessee’s General Sessions Court. 

 

If you get sued in the General Sessions Court, the sheriff hands you this very form at your door with no explanation or instruction. You are left to decode its meaning for yourself.  

 

What happens if you don’t have a law school education? If your vision isn’t perfect? If you are not a native English speaker? If you can’t afford a lawyer to read it for you…? 

 

There’s a good chance you won’t show up to court. Many do not. 

 

Some litigants read the words “detainer warrant” and fear they are being arrested. One elderly TJC client who was being sued for eviction interpreted the date written on the warrant as the date she had to move out of her apartment, rather than the date of her eviction hearing. She asked her son to give it a second look – and he thought the same thing. She was already calling moving companies by the time we reached her. 

 

If you would like to see the impacts of inadequate process firsthand, all you need to do is go to the Friday morning docket call at your local courthouse. More than two-thirds of the defendants named on the docket do not show up to court. They lose their case by default. 

 

Tennessee has a higher poverty rate (13.6%) than the U.S. as a whole (12.8%). A fourth of Memphis’s residents live in poverty. Per capita income over the past year for the entire state of Tennessee is only $32,908. In 2021 dollars, median household income in Memphis was $43,981 and per capita income over the previous year was only $28,258. Median household income in rural Grundy County is similar, at $45,150, with per capita income over the previous year at $21,848. Large income disparities exist across counties in Tennessee. For example, Davidson County median household income and per capita income metrics are much higher than in Shelby and Grundy Counties. A default judgment for the maximum claim allowed under the general sessions court could therefore mean more than a year’s income for many Tennesseans, given the limitations of a per capita measurement.  

 

Key Takeaways 

Tennesseans on the lower end of the income average are thus likely to be left significantly worse off if not properly informed of legal procedures being initiated against them, highlighting the importance of accessible, understandable summons forms in advancing justice for defendants in both eviction and civil cases.  

 

Of course, not all default judgments are because of bad court summons forms. There can be any number of reasons why somebody might not appear for their court date. Some might not be able to get time off of work. Others might not want to dispute the claims being made against them. But as long as there remain any defendants who lose their case as a direct result of an incomprehensible court summons form, it remains an injustice that cannot stand. A fundamental right to due process can hardly be called such if it can be exercised to a greater degree by persons with a greater educational attainment or ability than those who may have less of the same. 

 

Comments


Commenting has been turned off.
bottom of page