Gartin Building Courtroom with the Great Seal of the State of Mississippi

Access to Justice Summit to address legal needs of the poor

September 4, 2002

Poor people who can't afford to hire a lawyer face problems in gaining access to the civil justice system, Mississippi Supreme Court Chief Justice Edwin L. Pittman said.

Pittman on Sept. 6 will convene a meeting of lawyers, judges and other elected officials and religious leaders to discuss ways to improve the delivery of civil legal services to the poor. The Mississippi Access to Justice Summit is scheduled for 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Clarion Hotel, 400 Greymont Ave. in Jackson.

Pittman said, "There are a lot of people who have serious legal problems and they don't have the means with which to present these problems to a court. We have a tremendous lack of proper representation in the courts for many of our citizens, particularly the lack of appropriate representation in domestic cases."

Federally funded legal services programs for the poor are shrinking.

In 2002, Mississippi received $5.34 million from Legal Services Corporation, the federal nonprofit organization chartered by Congress in 1974. Beginning Jan. 1, 2003, Mississippi will lose $997,448 as a result of LSC decennial funding reallocation based on poverty population figures from the 2000 U.S. Census.

In 1990, Mississippi had 631,029 residents eligible for LSC-funded assistance. In 2000, Mississippi had 548,079 eligible poor. Eligibility is based on income at or below 125 percent of federal poverty guidelines: $11,075 for an individual and $22,625 for a family of four. Currently, there are 34 legal services attorneys and 64 paralegals and support staff in four offices to serve Mississippi's 548,079 eligible clients - one advocate to serve every 16,120 eligible low-income Mississippians, according to LSC statistics.

Four legal services programs include South Mississippi Legal Services with offices in Biloxi and Pascagoula; Southeast Mississippi Legal Services in Hattiesburg, Laurel and Meridian; Central Southwest Mississippi Legal Services in Jackson, McComb, Natchez and Vicksburg; and North Mississippi Rural Legal Services in Oxford, Tupelo, West Point, Greenville and Clarksdale.

Legal services programs have already undergone cuts. In 1995, there were seven legal services programs in the state with 24 offices, said Phyllis M. Thornton, executive director of the Mississippi Volunteer Lawyers Project of the Mississippi Bar.

Pittman said, "Legal services are under tremendous cutbacks. They have had to reduce staff and raise caseloads. They are getting to the point where they cannot do what they have been doing with the same degree of excellence and success."

Pittman said, "Because of their cutbacks and because of that need, we are coming together to see how we can better facilitate access to justice. This summit is called for all of the interested parties and professionals in the access to justice area to come together to see how we can improve our representation of persons needing access to the courts."

Hinds County Chancery Judge Denise Owens sees people try to navigate the complexities of the court system alone because they can't afford legal representation. Others don't get to the courthouse at all.

Owens said, "With the cutback in funding to the legal services program, it's left a void there for domestic cases in terms of divorce, domestic violence and those types of cases. It's very important that these women and men get access to the courts to protect themselves."

Technical requirements of some of the pleadings and proceedings in chancery court make it difficult for a person to attempt do-it-yourself representation, Owens said.

"There are technical requirements and if they aren't met, then the person can't proceed," Owens said. "Of course, a lot of people don't even attempt it because if they don't have the money, they can't hire an attorney and they can't get representation from other sources."

"There is a need being unmet, especially in situations of families with children involved," Owens said. "The need is so great. Their resources are limited."

Legal Services Corporation Vice President Mauricio Vivero of Washington, D.C., said, "Current estimates show that fewer than 20 percent of low-income Mississippians can get access to legal assistance when faced with a civil problem. So, essentially, four out of every five poor people in Mississippi arrive at the courthouse door to find they cannot afford the price of admission."

Vivero, who will address the summit in Jackson on Friday, said, "Federal grants account for 89 percent of Mississippi's total civil justice funding, ranking the state 47th out of 50 in private and state support. With the loss of another $1 million in federal funds expected in 2003, the time has come for Mississippi to make an adequate investment in civil justice at the state level - or the phrase 'equal justice for all' will be a hollow promise."

Private lawyers willing to donate their time and free legal assistance fill part of the void, Thornton said, but that is still not enough. Private lawyers provided about $1.8 million worth of legal representation to the poor for free last year through the Mississippi Volunteer Lawyer Project, Thornton said. More than $1 million worth of free legal representation, known as pro bono work, was provided through the end of June this year, Thornton said.

The following is a list of projected funding cutbacks for legal services offices, barring Congressional action to raise LSC's FY 2003 appropriation:

  • North Miss Rural Legal Services, Oxford - $466,730
  • Central Southwest Mississippi Legal Services, Jackson - $256,550
  • Southeast Mississippi Legal Services, Hattiesburg - $174,163
  • South Mississippi Legal Services, Biloxi - $90,782