In 1966, Ashley Wiltshire accompanied a group of students from the upstate New York seminary where he was studying for the ministry to Albany, Georgia, to work in the civil rights movement. Struck by the fact that a group of law students seemed to be accomplishing much more than his group of seminary students, Wiltshire left seminary, earned a law degree at Vanderbilt, and began clerking for the struggling Legal Aid office in Nashville, which had existed for a year and a half when he joined it.
Ultimately rising to executive director, Wiltshire spent his entire 37-year career with what became the Legal Aid Society of Middle Tennessee and the Cumberlands, helping to oversee its expansion to eight offices that now serve indigent clients in 48 counties. To be eligible for Legal Aid services, clients must receive less than $12,500 in annual income, with only an additional $4,500 allowed for each additional person in the household, and the non-profit organization focuses on family law, consumer cases, housing and landlord/tenant disputes, public benefits and health care. Legal Aid serves "the poorest of the poor," and a disproportionate number of its cases involve domestic violence.
Although Legal Aid recently received a grant to support services to families affected by upcoming changes in state welfare benefits, Wiltshire remains concerned about its inability to meet the tremendous demand for services. Legal Aid gets approximately 20,000 calls a year, but can handle only about 6,000 cases annually, even with the help of lawyers who volunteer their time pro bono.
Wiltshire also hopes Legal Aid will be able to increase salaries in the near future. "We are way behind even salaries for public defenders and district attorneys," he said. "And low salaries mean that many young attorneys who want to work with Legal Aid simply can't afford to."