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

Legal community discusses poor people's access to courts

September 6, 2002

Mississippi Supreme Court Chief Justice Edwin L. Pittman on Friday pledged to take a leadership role in finding ways to make the state's civil justice system accessible to poor people who can't afford to hire lawyers to represent them in their legal problems.

"We have to recognize the fact that we in many communities are frankly failing to get legal services to the people who need it," Pittman told about 80 people who gathered in Jackson for the Mississippi Access to Justice Summit.

Pittman said tens of thousands of people can't get access to the legal system because they can't afford to hire a lawyer and they don't know how to represent themselves.

"It's time that the courts help shoulder the burden of rendering legal services to the needy in Mississippi," Pittman said.

Pittman convened the summit to seek solutions to poor people's problems in getting access to the civil justice system. The day-long meeting included lawyers, judges and other elected officials and religious leaders from across the state.

Pittman said he will do what he can, within the confines of the Code of Judicial Conduct, to help raise money for civil legal services for the poor.

Pittman said that one of the ways the Supreme Court can help is by reassessing its rules that address free legal services to the poor, known as pro bono work. The Supreme Court currently suggests in its rules that lawyers donate 50 hours a year in pro bono work. It is a suggested goal but is not mandatory.

Pittman said an alternative that he will ask the Supreme Court Rules Committee to consider is to allow lawyers to donate money in lieu of time, with the money going to civil legal assistance programs for the poor. Florida has a similar program, he said.

Pittman borrowed from Mississippi Volunteer Lawyers Project Executive Director Phyllis Thornton's mantra: "If you can't give us the time, send the dime."

Mississippi Bar President Donald Dornan of Biloxi noted that attorneys participating in the Mississippi Volunteer Lawyers Project last year donated free legal services worth more than $1.8 million.

Dornan said, "We can ask ourselves, 'Are we doing enough? How can we do better?' "

Judicial and private bar involvement are crucial as federal funding for four Legal Services programs in Mississippi continues to shrink. In January 2003, Legal Services programs in Mississippi expect a cut of $997,448 as a result of Legal Services Corporation funding allocations based on poverty population figures from the 2000 U. S. Census. Federal grants make up 89 percent of the funding of the state's Legal Services Corporation-supported programs.

The 2000 Census identified 548,079 low income Mississippians eligible for Legal Services assistance, compared to 631,029 in the 1990 census. The good news is there are fewer poor people. But Legal Services resources were spread thin even before the cuts.

Ben Cole II of Oxford, executive director of North Mississippi Rural Legal Services, said the 34 lawyers working in legal services programs statewide aren't enough to handle all of the clients. And just getting and keeping lawyers to work for Legal Services is tough; the starting salary for a recent law school graduate is $28,000.

Participants in Friday's summit broke up into small groups to brainstorm about ways to improve access to the legal system for the poor. Topics included self-representation, known as pro se representation; client access; range of services; private attorney involvement; resource development; and community and education elements. A few of the many suggestions offered were:

  • seeking state legislative funding and increasing private sector funding;
  • providing incentives for private practice attorneys to do pro bono work, or do more. Suggested incentives included offering continuing legal education credits and tax credits;
  • changing rules of law practice so that law professors and other legal professionals who are not licensed attorneys might do free legal assistance;
  • identify existing resources and coordinate them statewide;
  • developing a comprehensive legal assistance resource manual;
  • providing legal resource materials to attorneys who are willing to do free legal assistance in areas outside their regular practices;
  • establishing more legal education clinics so that people considering representing themselves may find information about their areas of legal interest.