Grant announced for legal aid referral line for the poor

Sept. 6, 2002

The nonprofit national Legal Services Corporation on Friday announced that Mississippi will receive a $500,000 grant to set up a statewide toll free legal aid intake and referral hotline.

Legal Services Corporation Vice President Mauricio Vivero made the announcement in Jackson on Friday during the first statewide Mississippi Access to Justice Summit. Mississippi Supreme Court Chief Justice Edwin L. Pittman convened the meeting of lawyers, judges and other elected officials and religious leaders to discuss ways to improve access to the civil justice system by people who can't afford to hire a lawyer.

Vivero pointed out that the toll-free telephone number won't be staffed by lawyers waiting to analyze callers' legal problems and give free legal advice. It will serve as a central intake and referral service staffed by paralegals or others trained in some aspects of the law. Those staff will listen to a caller's problems, determine whether the problem is one that needs to be handled by a lawyer or by some other means, and determine if the caller's income level qualifies that person for representation by a lawyer working for one of the Legal Services programs. Callers who qualify for Legal Services assistance will be put in touch with an attorney.

Eligibility for Legal Services assistance is based on income at or below 125 percent of federal poverty guidelines: $11,075 income for an individual and $22,625 for a family of four.

The statewide toll free number is expected to be operational in 2004 at the latest, Vivero said. The number is not yet available.

The technology grant was given to North Mississippi Rural Legal Services, headquartered in Oxford, with branch offices in Tupelo, West Point, Greenville and Clarksdale.

North Mississippi Rural Legal Services already maintains a statewide legal services web site, www.mslegalservices.org. The web site provides information about the state's four Legal Services programs, contact information, legal education information such as legal grounds for divorce and how to make or change a will, and other information.

Ben Cole II, executive director of North Mississippi Rural Legal Services, noted that technology can't solve all of the problems because poor people have limited access.

"Obviously there is a gap in terms of the education level of people in our state and with people who do not have access to computers," Cole said.

The announcement of the grant to fund the statewide toll free telephone number for Legal Services comes at a time when civil legal assistance programs for the poor in Mississippi are facing nearly $1 million in cuts to their operating budgets. The state has four legal services programs with a total of 34 attorneys. In January 2003, Mississippi will lose $997, 448 to the legal service programs based on poverty population figures from the 2000 U.S. Census.

But, Cole said, "It's all not gloom and doom. There are a lot of opportunities as a result of the challenges we face. I believe we in Mississippi are going to step up to the plate and we are going to meet the challenge."

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MEDIA CONTACTS:   Phyllis Thornton
Mississippi Bar
601-948-4476
  Eric Kleiman
LSC Press Secretary
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  Beverly Pettigrew Kraft
Administrative Office of Courts
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