Supreme Court revises rules for free legal services to the poor
The Mississippi Supreme Court on Thursday revised rules regarding lawyers’ obligation to provide free legal services to low income people.
The court adopted the revisions to Rule 6.1 of the Mississippi Rules of Professional Conduct in a continuing effort to improve access to justice for the poor. Changes include allowing lawyers to donate money in lieu of their time and creating a reporting requirement to encourage participation. The court suggests at least 20 hours of work or $200 a year. The money will be used by the Mississippi Bar to provide civil legal assistance to the poor.
Chief Justice James W. Smith Jr. said, “The Supreme Court is committed to providing adequate representation for indigents and remains hopeful that by these amendments to Rule 6.1 that lawyers will all fully assist us in that commitment.”
Justice Jess H. Dickinson said, “This rule change is important because it clearly announces that providing pro bono legal services to the poor is a lawyer’s professional responsibility, and failure to fulfill that responsibility must now be reported to the Mississippi Bar.”
Participation is voluntary. The old rule suggested 50 hours per year of pro bono work. The new rule suggests at least 20 hours, but adds a requirement that lawyers report their hours of pro bono work to the Mississippi Bar.
Justice Dickinson said, “One of the reasons for the reduction in hours was to provide Mississippi attorneys a realistic choice of actually performing legal services for the poor, or making the annual $200 payment to help fund legal services programs for the poor.”
Lawyers who do more than 20 hours in a year may carry over the excess for up to two additional years. The amendments also allow law firms to collectively satisfy pro bono obligations. One or more lawyers at a firm may take on complicated, time consuming matters, with their work meeting the obligations of other members of the firm.
The Court in commentary to the rules said, “As our society has become one in which rights and responsibilities are increasingly defined in legal terms, access to legal services has become of critical importance. This is true for all people, be they rich, poor, or of moderate means. However, because the legal problems of the poor often involve areas of basic need, their inability to obtain legal services can have dire consequences. The vast unmet legal needs of the poor in Mississippi have been recognized by the Supreme Court of Mississippi. The Supreme Court has further recognized the necessity of finding a solution to the problem of providing the poor greater access to legal service and the unique role of lawyers in our adversarial system of representing and defending persons against the actions and conduct of governmental entities, individuals, and non-governmental entities. As an officer of the court, each member of The Mississippi Bar in good standing has a professional responsibility to provide pro bono legal service to the poor.”
The Court commented, “Pro bono legal service to the poor is to be provided not only to those persons whose household incomes are below the federal poverty standard but also to those persons society sees as unable to pay for legal services, those frequently referred to as the ‘working poor.’ ”
The Court said, “Most pro bono service should involve civil proceedings where there is no governmental obligation to provide counsel, given that government must provide indigent representation in most criminal matters.” However, the court said, “Services can be performed in civil matters or in criminal or quasi-criminal matters for which there is no government obligation to provide funds for legal representation.”
The Court said, “Pro bono legal service to the poor need not be provided only through legal services to individuals; it can also be provided through legal services to charitable, religious, or educational organizations whose overall mission and activities are designed predominantly to address the needs of the poor. For example, legal service to organizations such as a church, civic, or community service organizations relating to a project seeking to address the problems of the poor would qualify.”
A complete copy of the revisions is posted on the Supreme Court’s web site, www.courts.ms.gov. Go to the 3/24/05 Hand Down list. The link is Click Here.