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Public Defender's Office to close public access, rely on phones to meet with clients

The office on Liberty Street represents hundreds of people accused of crimes. It's limiting face-to-face meetings with clients as a precautionary measure.

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — The hundreds of people represented by Knox County's public defenders can continue to talk with their lawyers. But they'll have to do it by phone and not in person.

The Knox County Community Law Office announced Monday afternoon it would no longer take visits from the public at its facility on Liberty Street out of concerns about the coronavirus.

Lawyers and support staff will continue to work at the office as they have before. They just won't see clients one-on-one.

"This closure is necessary for us to do our part to keep our staff, our clients and the community safe," a notice from Public Defender Eric Lutton's office states.

Sweeping changes took effect Monday across the state's judicial system following Friday's order by the Tennessee Supreme Court to sharply curtail in-person court gatherings through March.

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Generally, trials are now off, although judges and attorneys will continue to work on cases. Many hearings such as report-backs are being postponed.

Area counties have begun sending out follow-up announcements to jury pools that they don't have to report this month under the present court order.

Lutton's announcement says his staff will be working in the office and communicating with people in the community through phone, email, fax and letter.

Anyone who needs to speak with their publicly appointed defender or a staff member can call the office at 865-594-6120.

While the state Supreme Court's order applies through March, Lutton's office said its closure of one-on-one public contact will remain "until further notice."