Supreme Court Justices visit North Mississippi Rural Legal Services

July 17, 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 Lawyer Project Legal Line.

North Mississippi Rural Legal Services is expected to receive $21,840. Supreme Court Justices Kay Cobb of Oxford and George C. Carlson Jr. of Batesville are scheduled to visit the Oxford office of North Mississippi Rural Legal Services, located at 2134 W. Jackson Ave., at 4:30 p.m. Friday, July 18, to deliver a check for partial payment.

North Mississippi Rural Legal Services Executive Director Ben Cole of Oxford said his office faces the prospects of cutting services due to federal funding cuts.

"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 served by North Mississippi Rural Legal Services through its offices in Oxford, Clarksdale, Greenville, Tupelo and West Point.

"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.

North Mississippi Rural Legal Services took about a $471,000 cut in federal funds this year, although Congress has restored about half of the loss in a one-time appropriation. Legal Services will feel the full force of the cut in 2004 fiscal year.

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. Declining interest rates mean the office's IOLTA grant for the upcoming fiscal year will be $36,500, compared to $124,000 for the past fiscal year for North Mississippi Rural Legal Services.

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

Mississippi Supreme Court Chief Justice Edwin L. Pittman said the cuts 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.

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 last fall pledged to seek ways of assisting poor people with access to the courts. A fee imposed by the Supreme Court in January 2003 on out of state lawyers is one way the Supreme Court has sought to carry out the promise.

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 money is to be divided based on each of the four Legal Services entities' percentage of population living at or below the poverty level, with $13,000 also going to Legal Line. The hotline offers free basic legal advice. North Mississippi Rural Legal Services will get $21,840, which is based on 42 percent of the state's poverty population located in the 39 north Mississippi counties.

Justice William L. Waller Jr., chairman of the Supreme Court Rules Committee, said,"The genesis of the $200 fee came out of the effort by the Supreme Court to require those people using our courts from out of state to make a contribution that would be used to fund indigent representation." Waller said, "We also realize these out of state attorneys are not required to do pro bono work. If they are going to use our courts, they need to pitch in and do their fair share."

Justice James W. Smith said, "We will explore additional opportunities for lawyers to be involved."

Waller, Smith and Justice James E. Graves Jr. on Wednesday, July 16, presented a $13,000 check to Central Southwest Mississippi Legal Services Executive Director Lindia Robinson during a visit to her Jackson office. The check was a partial payment. Additional funds are expected to be delivered later, with a total of $14,040 to be given to the program from the March through June pro hac vice registration collections.

Graves said, "As someone who began his legal career as a staff attorney at Legal Services, I am acutely aware of the need for those services and of the importance of those services."

Graves said the federal funding cuts to the Legal Services Corp. force staff to make hard choices about who they will represent, and what kinds of cases they will reject for lack of staff, time and resources.

Robinson said, "Last year at this time we had eight attorneys. This year, we have five. We are literally turning down hundreds of people who are eligible for our services."

Robinson said the funding cuts affect access to the justice system for battered women, exploited and abused elderly people and the unemployed, among others.

Central Southwest Mississippi Legal Services, with offices in Jackson, McComb, Natchez and Vicksburg, covers 19 counties that have 27 percent of the state's population living at or below the poverty level.

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 an 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 DirectorSam 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. The office in Meridian is expected to remain open.

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.

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

Southeast Mississippi Legal Services, whose service area includes 19 percent of the state's poverty population, is expected to receive $9,880 from the fees collected from out of state lawyers. Chief Justice Pittman is scheduled to visit the Hattiesburg office Monday, July 21, at 10a.m. The office is at 111 East Front St.

South Mississippi Legal Services, with a service area that includes 12 percent of the state's poverty population in six counties, is expected to receive $6,240. Pittman is scheduled to visit the organization's office at 111 Rue Magnolia, Suite 202, in Biloxi office at 1 p.m. July 21.

Stanley Taylor, executive director of South Mississippi Legal Services, and four other lawyers have offices in Biloxi and Pascagoula. Taylor said his office relies heavily on members of the private bar to take cases.

"We have a number of attorneys who practically donate their time because of the reduced fee contracts," Taylor said. "We get a lot of support from the local bar."

Jackson attorney Alex Alston will chair the private, non-profit Equal Justice Foundation, which was recently established to raise private funds and find other resources to assist with legal representation of the poor.

Alston, a former Mississippi Bar president whose pro bono work has been recognized nationally, said lawyers have a duty and an obligation to give of their time and talents. Alston issued a challenge to members or the private bar to match and make up for the federal funding cuts with contributions and services "to insure one thing and one thing only - that every citizen, no matter who you are, has equal access to the courts."

Robinson praised Alston's work. "It is essential that we partner with everybody committed to equal access to justice if we are to meet the need," Robinson said.

Robinson also praised the efforts of Chief Justice Pittman to call attention to and address the difficulties Legal Services organizations face. "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," Robinson said.