Fees from out of state lawyers support Legal Services for poor

July 15, 2003

Civil legal assistance programs for the poor in Mississippi will receive more than $66,000 as a result of fees assessed to out of state lawyers.

The money will be divided among the state's four Legal Services offices and the Mississippi Volunteer Lawyers Project Legal Line.

Mississippi Supreme Court Chief Justice Edwin L. Pittman said sharp cuts in federal funding to Legal Services programs hurt poor people's access to the courts. Pittman has sought funding to assist Legal Services.

Pittman said, "The Legal Services Corp. and the Volunteer Lawyers Project need help. They've got a reduction in available funds to furnish legal advice and services to the poorest people in the state."

"All of these Legal Services groups are experiencing major shortfalls in revenue and consequently, they've had to reduce the services rendered," Pittman said.

Lindia Robinson of Jackson, executive director of Central Southwest Mississippi Legal Services, said, "We are very appreciative of the leadership role Chief Justice Pittman has taken in bringing to the forefront the tremendous reduction in funds and the tremendous impact it will have on low income citizens. He understands the need for equal access to everybody."

Statewide, Legal Services saw about $1 million in federal funding cuts for the 2003 fiscal year, Robinson said.

Members of the Supreme Court are scheduled to visit each of the four Legal Services administrative offices this week and next to present checks. The justices are visiting the Legal Services offices to call attention to their need for funding.

The schedule of visits is as follows:

Jackson,Central Southwest Mississippi Legal Services

Wednesday, July 16, 1:30 p.m., 414 South State St., third floor. Supreme Court Justices James W. Smith Jr., William L. Waller Jr. and James E. Graves Jr. are scheduled to visit the office and present a check.

Oxford, North Mississippi Rural Legal Services

Friday, July 18, 4:30 p.m., 2134 W. Jackson Ave. Justices Kay Cobb and George C. Carlson Jr. are scheduled to visit the office and present a check.

Hattiesburg, Southeast Mississippi Legal Services

Monday, July 21, 10 a.m., 111 East Front St. Chief Justice Pittman is scheduled to visit the office and present a check.

Biloxi, South Mississippi Legal Services

Monday, July 21, 1 p.m., 111 Rue Magnolia, Suite 202. Chief Justice Pittman is scheduled to visit the office and present a check.

The Mississippi Volunteer Lawyer Project Legal Line will receive $13,000. No formal presentation is planned.

The Legal Line program, operated under the direction of the Mississippi Bar, allows callers to get basic legal information from an attorney at no charge. The program fields about 12,000 calls a year, said Phyllis Thornton, director of the Mississippi Volunteer Lawyer Project. Legislation enacted this year allows public and private funds to be used in providing legal services to low income people. Gov. Ronnie Musgrove on March 25 signed legislation which created the Civil Legal Assistance Fund. Senate Bill 2543, introduced by Sen. Gloria Williamson of Philadelphia, designated the Supreme Court to administer the funds through the Administrative Office of Courts.

The Civil Legal Assistance Fund is authorized to accept monies from any public or private source.

Pittman encourages others to add their support.

"Anybody that wants to contribute to this fund may do so," Pittman said.

The Supreme Court on Jan. 16, 2003, amended its rules regulating the practice of law in Mississippi by attorneys licensed in other states. One amendment to the rule for pro hac vice appearances requires that out of state lawyers pay a $200 fee to be used for civil legal representation for the poor. The rule changes went into effect March 1. From March through June, more than 400 lawyers registered to participate as counsel pro hac vice, generating more than $66,000 for indigent civil representation.

The Supreme Court designated the money collected from pro hac vice registration to be distributed to the Legal Services offices and the Mississippi Volunteer Lawyers Project Legal Line.

The money is expected to be distributed based on each Legal Services office's percentage of the eligible poverty population. The 19 counties covered by Central Southwest Mississippi Legal Services account for 27 percent of the state's population living at or below the poverty level. Justices will present a $13,000 check to officials in Jackson on Wednesday. The check is a partial payment. Additional funds are expected to be delivered later, with a total of $14,040 to be given to Central Southwest Mississippi Legal Services. It has offices in Jackson, McComb, Natchez and Vicksburg.

North Mississippi Rural Legal Services is expected to receive $21,840. That is based on 42 percent of the state's poverty population located in the 39 north Mississippi counties served by North Mississippi Rural Legal Services. Offices are located in Oxford, Clarksdale, Greenville, Tupelo and West Point.

Southeast Mississippi Legal Services, whose service area includes 19 percent of the state's poverty population, is expected to receive $9,880. It has offices in Hattiesburg, Laurel and Meridian.

South Mississippi Legal Services, whose service area includes 12 percent of the state's poverty population, is expected to receive $6,240. It has offices in Biloxi and Pascagoula.

Cuts in federal funding mean some of the Legal Services branch offices may close as the organizations struggle to continue to provide services.

Robinson said she expects Central Southwest Mississippi Legal Services to close its two fully staffed offices in Natchez and Vicksburg. Robinson said she is seeking cheaper or free office space to keep a intake staff in both cities, but lawyers will have to divide their time between those satellite offices and the service area's other two offices in Jackson and McComb. Robinson said it's important to keep a presence in Natchez and Vicksburg because poor people who qualify for Legal Services assistance often lack transportation.

Southeast Mississippi Legal Services may close its Laurel office, said Executive Director Sam Buchanan. He also is looking for free office space to continue to keep intake staff available in Laurel, but he expects lawyers in Hattiesburg to take up the case load.

Five attorneys handle the 18 counties served by Southeast Mississippi Legal Services. Buchanan said the federal funding cuts this year forced the office to lay off one attorney and three support staff. Federal funding cuts to his office amounted to $175,000, although Congress restored half of that in an one-time appropriation. The cuts remain in place for next year.

Buchanan said, "Any time we have a reduction in staff, it affects direct client services."

The earlier federal funding cuts cost Central Southwest Mississippi Legal Services three staff attorney positions. Five attorneys now serve clients in the 19-county area, Robinson said.

Robinson said cuts in federal funds and lower interest rates delivered a "double whammy" to Legal Services programs. Central Southwest Mississippi Legal Services lost $256,000 in federal funding. Half of that loss was restored by Congress in a special appropriation for one year only, Robinson said.

Legal Services offices also receive money from a program known as Interest on Lawyer Trust Accounts, referred to by the acronym IOLTA. Some of the interest collected on money held in trust by lawyers for their clients is used for grants to Legal Services programs.

Robinson said declining interest rates shrank her office's IOLTA grant from $78,000 for the fiscal year that ends July 31 to $23,000 for the next fiscal year.

Buchanan said his office's IOLTA grant went from $57,700 to $16,800.

North Mississippi Rural Legal Services Executive Director Ben Cole of Oxford said his office also faces the prospects of cutting services due to federal funding cuts to the Legal Services Corp. His office took a $470,000 cut in federal funds this year.

"If we are not able to attract a significant amount of non-Legal Services funding, we will be forced to cut back services to clients," Cole said.

Cole said 13 attorneys now handle civil representation for poor people in the 39-county area. "We are just tremendously under-staffed at this point and now we are facing the likelihood of having to cut back services even more because of the loss of funding," Cole said.