$130,000 to assist civil representation of the poor

August 23, 2004

The Mississippi Supreme Court this week will distribute $130,000 to programs which provide civil legal assistance to the poor. The money is generated by fees from out of state lawyers.

The Supreme Court has directed that the money be divided among the state’s two Legal Services programs and the Mississippi Volunteer Lawyers Project. The distribution includes:

• $51,000 to the Mississippi Center for Legal Services;
• $34,000 to North Mississippi Rural Legal Services;
• $45,000 to the Volunteer Lawyers Project of the Mississippi Bar.

Supreme Court Chief Justice James W. Smith Jr. and Presiding Justice William L. Waller Jr. will present a check to representatives of the Volunteer Lawyers Project at 1 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 24, at the Mississippi Bar Center at 643 North State Street in Jackson.

Supreme Court Justice George C. Carlson Jr. at 3:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Aug. 25, will present a check to officials of North Mississippi Rural Legal Services at its branch office in Tupelo. The office is located at 658 West Main Street.

Supreme Court Justice Michael K. Randolph at 10 a.m. on Friday, Aug. 27, will deliver a check to officials of the Mississippi Center for Legal Services at the Hattiesburg headquarters, located at 111 E. Front Street.

Division of the $85,000 designated for Legal Services is based upon percentage of the poverty level population living in the counties served by the two Legal Services programs. About 548,000 people at or below the poverty level are eligible to seek civil legal assistance from Legal Services programs statewide.

 North Mississippi Rural Legal Services’ 12 lawyers provide civil legal assistance for poor people in 39 counties. Offices are in Clarksdale, Greenville, Oxford, Tupelo and West Point.

The Mississippi Center for Legal Services has 14 attorneys who serve clients from 43 counties. Offices are in Gulfport, Hattiesburg, Jackson, Meridian and McComb,

Legal Services programs in Mississippi have lost about $1 million in federal funding in the past two years, forcing staff cuts, program consolidation and offices closings.

Sam Buchanan Jr. of Hattiesburg, executive director of the Mississippi Center for Legal Services, said, “The loss of federal funding has had a tremendous impact on the program.”

Ben T. Cole II of Oxford, executive director of North Mississippi Rural Legal Services, said his office is in danger of losing three attorney positions to funding cuts.

“This is going to tremendously help,” Cole said of the Civil Legal Assistance Fund money. “We are optimistic that we are going to be able to find the funding. There is going to be a very noticeable cut in services to poor people if we are not able to maintain those positions.”

Some of the people screened by Legal Services are referred to the Mississippi Volunteer Lawyers Project, where they are matched with private practice attorneys who donate their time. The Volunteer Lawyers Project expects to use its allocation to hire a second staff person, said Shirley Williams, executive director and now the project’s only employee. Another staff person is needed to assess the needs of referred clients and locate lawyers willing to handle the cases.

Williams said, “We are helping those who otherwise wouldn’t have access to the courts. The Supreme Court is allowing us the opportunity to help more people.”

A total of $246,000 has been distributed from the Civil Legal Assistance Fund since July 2003. The Supreme Court ordered distribution of 50,000 this past July to Legal Services program, and $66,000 in July 2003 to Legal Services and the Volunteer Lawyers Project.

No tax dollars are involved.

The Supreme Court since March 2003 has required a $200 fee from attorneys who are licensed in other states and who represent clients in Mississippi courts. The money goes to the Civil Legal Assistance Fund, which was created by the Mississippi Legislature in 2003 to accept funds from any public or private source to provide civil legal services to low income people.