Judges call on lawyers to provide free legal representation to the poor

April 24, 2003

The Conference of Mississippi Judges on Thursday urged lawyers in private practice to donate their time to represent poor people.

The Conference of Mississippi Judges includes justices of the Supreme Court, judges of the Court of Appeals, chancery, circuit and county courts and senior status judges. The judges' spring conference was held Wednesday through Friday in Gulfport.

Circuit Judge Stephen Simpson of Gulfport, who became chairman of the Conference of Circuit Judges on Thursday, said federal funding cuts to the Legal Services Corporation mean more responsibility for representing poor people in civil litigation will shift to the private bar.

Providing free legal representation is known as pro bono work.

Simpson said, "There needs to be a recognition and participation by the private bar in pro bono representation." Simpson said the Conference of Mississippi Judges wishes "to encourage participation both in man hours and financial contributions from the private bar."

The Conference of Mississippi Judges on Thursday reaffirmed a resolution which was first adopted in 1982. The resolution recognized the efforts of the Mississippi Bar and the Legal Services Corporation in providing free legal services through the Volunteer Lawyers Project.

The resolution concludes, "The Conference of Mississippi Judges strongly urges every Mississippi lawyer to fulfill his or her ethical obligation to represent poor clients by volunteering to participate in the Mississippi Volunteer Lawyers Project."

Mississippi Supreme Court Chief Justice Edwin L. Pittman said fees charged by the bar to out-of-state lawyers representing paying clients in state courts are another source of funding for indigent representation. The Supreme Court on March 1 adopted revised rules for the practice of law by lawyers licensed in other states. The rules include a $200 fee to the Mississippi Bar for indigent representation and a $25 fee to the Clerk of the Supreme Court.

As of Wednesday 117 out of state lawyers involved in litigation in Mississippi state courts had paid more than $22,000 in fees, Pittman said.

"It is my hope that most of the money generated will go to the domestic side of the docket," Pittman said.

Indigents defendants in criminal cases are afforded free court-appointed lawyers. However, poor people wishing to pursue civil litigation must look to the Legal Services Corporation, pro bono lawyers, or represent themselves. Legal Services offices cannot handle some kinds of cases, and don't have the resources to represent all of the people who qualify.

Hinds County Chancery Judge Denise Owens estimated that half of the people who appear in her court on domestic matters represent themselves. The majority who represent themselves are doing so because they can't afford to pay a lawyer.

"They can't afford a $150 an hour lawyers when they make $5 and something an hour themselves," Owens said.

No single program provides a complete solution. Lawyers volunteering their time is one element, Owens said.

"This is a responsibility our profession has," Owens said.