Gartin Building Courtroom with the Great Seal of the State of Mississippi

$45,000 given to Mississippi Volunteer Lawyers Project

August 24, 2004

Mississippi Supreme Court Chief Justice James W. Smith Jr. said Tuesday that the court is looking for more ways to give poor people better access to the civil justice system.

Chief Justice Smith, Presiding Justice William L. Waller Jr. and Justice James E. Graves Jr. at a meeting at the Mississippi Bar Center on Tuesday presented a check for $45,000 to the Mississippi Volunteer Lawyers Project.

Shirley Williams, executive director and sole employee of the Volunteer Lawyers Project, said the funding will allow the project to hire a paralegal administrative assistant to recruit more private lawyers to volunteer their time, and to put poor people who need civil legal assistance in touch with attorneys willing to help.

Chief Justice Smith said, “We want this group here at the Bar to know that the court is behind what you are doing.”

The check presentation to the Mississippi Volunteer Lawyers Project is one of three meetings scheduled this week for distribution of money from the Civil Legal Assistance Fund. Money is from fees paid by out of state lawyers who represent clients in Mississippi courts.

Other presentations this week are:

• Supreme Court Justice George C. Carlson Jr. at 3:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Aug. 25, will present a $34,000 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$51,000 check to officials of the Mississippi Center for Legal Services at the Hattiesburg headquarters, located at 111 E. Front Street.

Williams said, “I consider this a victory in our ongoing struggle to help some of Mississippi’s poorest citizens to get a day in court.”

Williams’ office receives about 1,000 calls per month from people seeking legal help. Some of the greatest needs are in the areas of domestic matters, landlord-tenant disputes and consumer problems, said Ben Piazza of Jackson, a private practice attorney and Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Mississippi Volunteer Lawyers Project.

Piazza said, “The biggest need women in domestic violence situations have is the need for legal assistance.”

Piazza said, “Almost one-fifth of the population of Mississippi qualifies for legal assistance under the Legal Services Corporation guidelines.”

But, Piazza said, Legal Services offices across the state employ fewer than 30 lawyers to meet those needs.

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.

Some of the people screened by Legal Services are referred to the Mississippi Volunteer Lawyers Project.

Williams said, “We are constantly recruiting lawyers to accept cases on a pro bono basis. This is a place that gives lawyers an opportunity to volunteer in their profession. I appreciate all the lawyers who have so graciously given of their time and expertise to help Mississippi’s poorest citizens gain access to the courts.”

The Mississippi Supreme Court amended its rules in an effort to improve access to justice for the poor and at the same time gain better oversight of the practice of law by out of state attorneys. 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. A total of $246,000 has been distributed from the Civil Legal Assistance Fund since July 2003.

Presiding Justice Waller, chairman of the Supreme Court Rules Committee, said at the meeting at the Bar, “It’s good to see a rule work.”

Justice Graves called the fees which support civil justice assistance “one of the best examples of forward thinking, without a lot of bureaucracy, taking money from one place and putting it where it is needed.”