Administrative Office of Courts
$50,000 goes to legal representation of the poor
Civil legal assistance programs for the poor in Mississippi will receive $50,000 this month from fees assessed to out of state lawyers.
The Mississippi Supreme Court has directed that the money be divided among the state's two civil legal assistance programs, with $30,000 going to the Mississippi Center for Legal Services and $20,000 going to North Mississippi Rural Legal Services.
Members of the Mississippi Supreme Court will visit Legal Services offices in Jackson and Oxford to present checks from the Civil Legal Assistance Fund.
Justice George C. Carlson Jr. will present a check to North Mississippi Rural Legal Services at 3 p.m. Tuesday, July 20, at the Legal Services office at 2134 W. Jackson Ave. in Oxford.
Justices William L. Waller Jr., James E. Graves Jr. and Michael K. Randolph are scheduled to present a check to the Mississippi Center for Legal Services at 10 a.m. Wednesday, July 21, at the Legal Services office at 414 South State St. in Jackson.
Chief Justice James W. Smith Jr. announced that additional funds will be disbursed in late August or early September.
Legal Services offices in Mississippi during the past two years have experienced sharp cuts in federal funding to the Legal Services Corp. Declining interest rates also shrank annual payments from the Interest on Lawyer Trust Accounts program, known as IOLTA. Legal Services offices across the state have curtailed services and consolidated their operations in response to the cuts. This time last year, four Legal Services operations served Mississippi's poor. On May 1, they were consolidated into two programs.
North Mississippi Rural Legal Services Executive Director Ben Cole said, "There is a great need for that additional funding because we have received significant cuts in funding from the Legal Services Corp. and IOLTA funding."
North Mississippi Rural Legal Services offers legal representation in civil matters for the poverty population in 39 counties. Twelve lawyers serve that area from offices in Clarksdale, Greenville, Oxford, Tupelo and West Point.
North Mississippi Rural Legal Services experienced federal funding cuts totaling about $500,000 spread over the past two years, Cole said. Additionally, IOLTA grants shrank from $124,000 in 2002 to $36,500 last year and $14,600 this year.
The Mississippi Center for Legal Services, with 14 lawyers working from offices in Gulfport, Hattiesburg, Jackson, Meridian and McComb, serves the poverty population in 43 counties.
The Mississippi Center for Legal Services combined the operations of three Legal Services entities into one on May 1. While the work increased, the funding, offices and staff shrank. The center's staff of attorneys shrank from 17 last year to 14 now, said Lindia Robinson, executive director of the Center for State Initiatives. The Legal Services office in Pascagoula closed. An attorney is in the Vicksburg office once a week. Hours for the Laurel office vary. The Natchez office closed, but efforts are underway to staff it for one or two days a week.
Losing the offices makes it harder to serve the legal needs of poor people who have limited access to transportation, Robinson said. "This time last year, we had nine main offices where clients could go and access our services. We are now down to five," Robinson said. "We have a serious access problem."
Robinson said federal funding for the Center for Legal Services is $2,799,703 in 2004. The combined federal funding for three Legal Services offices which previously served the area was $3,241,659 in 2002 and $2,963,875 in 2003.
IOLTA grants for the 43-county area dropped from $170,776 in 2002 to $50,000 in 2003. The next IOLTA grant is expected to be $21,900 for an annual funding period that begins in August.
The Mississippi Legislature in 2003 created the Civil Legal Assistance Fund, which is authorized to accept money from any public or private source to provide legal services to low income people.
One source of funding for civil legal assistance comes from fees assessed to out of state lawyers. The Supreme Court in March 2003 began to require a $200 fee from attorneys who are licensed in other states and who represent clients in Mississippi courts. Between March 2003 and June 2004, fees paid by out of state lawyers totaled $236,600. A year ago, $66,000 from the Civil Legal Assistance Fund was given to Legal Services offices and the Mississippi Volunteer Lawyers Project.
The Civil Legal Assistance Fund is authorized to accept money from any public or private source. The Supreme Court administers the funds through the Administrative Office of Courts.