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

Supreme Court distributes Civil Legal Assistance funds

December 13, 2005

Members of the Mississippi Supreme Court will deliver checks totaling $70,000 this week and next to programs which provide civil legal assistance to poor people.

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:

• $30,000 to the Mississippi Center for Legal Services;
• $20,000 to North Mississippi Rural Legal Services;
• $20,000 to the Volunteer Lawyers Project of the Mississippi Bar.

Justice Jess H. Dickinson will present a check to the Volunteer Lawyers Project at 3:30 p.m. on Thursday, Dec. 15, at the Mississippi Supreme Court on the Fourth Floor of the Gartin Justice Building at 450 High Street in Jackson.

Justice Michael K. Randolph will present a check at 9:30 a.m. Monday, Dec. 19, in the office of the Mississippi Center for Legal Services at 111 East Front Street in Hattiesburg.

Justice Chuck Easley will present a check at 1:30 p.m. Monday, Dec. 19, in the office of North Mississippi Rural Legal Services at 221 Commerce Street in West Point.

Attorneys employed by the state’s two Legal Services entities provide civil legal representation to poor people in areas such as domestic law, housing and consumer disputes.

Officials of Legal Services programs and the Volunteer Lawyers Project say they are struggling to meet the needs of growing numbers of poor people while they are expecting federal funding for their budgets to shrink next year. The cuts won’t be as much as in previous years, but the offices expect to be doing more with less.

Hurricane Katrina stretched Legal Services resources thinner. More people became eligible for Legal Services assistance after the Aug. 29 hurricane demolished property and wiped out jobs, casting into poverty people who previously would not have qualified for legal assistance. No precise figures were available for the increase. Census figures from 2000 showed about 548,000 people at or below the poverty level were eligible to seek civil legal assistance from Legal Services programs statewide.

Shirley Williams, director of the Volunteer Lawyers Project, said, “There are a great number of people out there whose needs are not being met. The need is so great. We have been understaffed for the past two years. I’m just afraid of what is to come. Without the Supreme Court allocating money toward the Mississippi Volunteer Lawyers Project, and the lawyers who volunteer, we would not be able to provide the support that we need to the many indigent people who call us. It’s just been a struggle.”

Williams said her office gets between 1,250 and 2,000 calls per month from people requesting legal assistance. Williams, one other full-time staff member and a temporary worker interview those seeking legal services, then find lawyers willing to take the cases. The limited staff to screen and make referrals creates a bottleneck.

The Volunteer Lawyers Project has about 1,550 attorneys on its roster, including both those currently participating and those who are presently inactive. About 200 are actively working on cases now. A re-enrollment campaign that would have updated the ranks of available legal talent became another hurricane casualty. The re-enrollment request was mailed Aug. 28, the day before Katrina struck, Williams said.

Since the hurricane, a program coordinated through the Young Lawyers Division of the Mississippi Bar provided a legal hotline and sent lawyers to Federal Emergency Management Agency sites to answer legal questions for storm victims. However, that program which dealt with emergency needs is expected to wind down. Clients whose legal problems require more long-term attention are expected to be shifted to the Volunteer Lawyers Project and the two Legal Services programs.

Williams said, “Prior to Katrina, we have not been able to recruit enough attorneys just to handle the normal day-to-day requests for help from indigent clients. It’s scary to me that we will now be faced with a huge number of new cases with no additional resources to handle them. We will continue to be overwhelmed.”

Sam Buchanan Jr. of Hattiesburg, executive director of the Mississippi Center for Legal Services, said the organization is seeing an increase in clients with legal issues which resulted from the hurricane, and he expects to see more. People who had been employed in the gaming industry, by city governments and in other private industry before Katrina would not have qualified for Legal Services representation because of their income, but Katrina wiped out jobs.

“The Katrina-related cases are beginning to increase,” Buchanan said. “We are beginning to encounter more Katrina-related issues in terms of housing evictions, unscrupulous contractors, unfulfilled contracts in terms of roof repairs and things of that nature.” He said people seeking FEMA assistance or appealing denials of FEMA assistance are seeking legal help from Legal Services offices.

The Mississippi Center for Legal Services has 15 attorneys who serve clients from 43 counties in the southern half of the state. Offices are in Hattiesburg, Jackson, Meridian, McComb and Pascagoula.

Until Hurricane Katrina, the Mississippi Center for Legal Services also had an office in Gulfport. Katrina ripped the roof from the Gulfport office and flooded it, Buchanan said. Now, one of the staff attorneys is working from a church and another is in space provided by a private law office. Staff have moved to the main office in Hattiesburg, which also had roof damage. The Pascagoula office, which was also damaged, had previously been only a satellite office not used daily. The Pascagoula office is being set up to serve as the temporary location for Legal Services work on the Coast.

The main source of funding for the Mississippi Center for Legal Services is federal funding through the Legal Services Corporation. The 43 counties in the southern half of Mississippi received about $2.7 million during the 2005 fiscal year that is nearing its end.

North Mississippi Rural Legal Services received about $1.8 million.

Both agencies expect less money in 2006.

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.

North Mississippi Rural Legal Services felt the effects of Hurricane Katrina in the legal needs of people displaced by the storm.

Ben Cole of Oxford, executive director North Mississippi Rural Legal Services, said his staff has dealt with issues including insurance, housing, problems related to getting children in new schools and a variety of other matters.

“It added additional burdens to our staff in terms of trying to respond to those needs,” Cole said.

Cole said, “This distribution (from the Supreme Court) coming at this time really is a great time for us because we will be able to do planning for 2006 knowing the money is available.

The Mississippi Supreme Court has distributed money twice this year from the Civil Legal Assistance Fund. The distributions this year total $170,000. The funds to be distributed will bring the total to $416,000 which has been distributed from the Civil Legal Assistance Fund since July 2003.

No tax dollars are involved.

The primary 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.

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. The Supreme Court administers the funds through the Administrative Office of Courts.