Supreme Court adopts rule to help fund legal assistance for poor
The Mississippi Supreme Court on May18 took another step intended to help fund access to justice for the poor when it ordered most private practice attorneys to place certain client and third party funds into interest-bearing accounts.
The Interest on Lawyer Trust Accounts (IOLTA) program is a source of funding for the Mississippi Center for Legal Services, North Mississippi Rural Legal Services, and the Volunteer Lawyers Project of the Mississippi Bar. All three organizations provide legal representation to poor people on civil matters. IOLTA funds also go to other projects of the Mississippi Bar Foundation.
The Supreme Court in an order revising Rule 1.15 of the Rules of Professional Conduct for lawyers made participation in the IOLTA program mandatory, effective Jan. 1, 2007. Participation had previously been voluntary. Exempted are judges, prosecutors, public agency attorneys and other public servants, law professors, attorneys who don’t have an office in Mississippi or don’t practice here, and those attorneys who don’t engage in private law practice.
The idea is to use the small deposits which don’t earn income for clients. Rule changes do not apply to the safekeeping and investment of client or third-party property which has the potential to earn income for the client.
The IOLTA program involves the deposit of small dollar amounts or short-term funds. Opening individual interest-bearing accounts for clients with small amounts is not economically feasible. Those small dollar amounts have the potential when pooled to generate funds which may be used in civil legal representation of the poor.
Mississippi Supreme Court Justice Jess H. Dickinson said, “There is a tremendous need for funds to help the Legal Services organizations and the Volunteer Lawyers Project.” Federal funding for those entities has been cut in recent years.
Justice Dickinson said, “The staffing for our Legal Services organizations has declined to the point that the poor in Mississippi are shamefully under-represented. Because of difficulty with access to legal services for the poor, this Court has tried hard over the last couple of years to look for solutions to the problem.”
The Supreme Court has made other changes intended to assist in legal representation of the poor. The Court in 2003 ordered out of state lawyers admitted to limited practice in Mississippi to pay a $200 fee, with the money going to civil legal representation of the poor. In 2005, the Court revised rules regarding lawyers’ obligation to provide free legal services to low income people. Changes adopted in March 2005 allowed lawyers to donate money in lieu of their time for legal representation of the poor, and created a reporting requirement to encourage participation. The court suggested at least 20 hours of work or $200 a year.
The Mississippi Legislature this year added a $5 fee to all civil court filings with the money going to Civil Legal Assistance Fund for the poor. House Bill 961 goes into effect July 1, 2006.
Justice Dickinson said the IOLTA funding and other monies generated for the Civil Legal Assistance Fund could help fill the gap created by federal funding cuts, but won’t increase legal services for the poor. “At least we didn’t lose ground,” he said.
A copy of the revised Rule 1.15 of the Rules of Professional Conduct is available on the Mississippi Supreme Court’s web site at https://courts.ms.gov.