Supreme Court distributes Civil Legal Assistance funds
Members of the Mississippi Supreme Court will deliver checks totaling $75,000 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:
Presiding Justice Kay B. Cobb will present a check to North Mississippi Rural Legal Services at 10 a.m. Friday, June 16, in the office of University of Mississippi School of Law Dean Samuel Davis in Oxford.
Presiding Justice William L. Waller Jr. will present a check to the Mississippi Volunteer Lawyers Project at 11:45 a.m. Thursday, June 22, at the Mississippi Bar Center at 643 North State Street in Jackson.
Justice Oliver E. Diaz Jr. will present a check to the Mississippi Center for Legal Services at 11 a.m Friday, June 23, at the future Gulfport branch office of the Mississippi Center for Legal Services at 520 East Pass Road, Suite J.
Attorneys employed by the state’s two Legal Services entities and private practice attorneys who give their time to the Volunteer Lawyers Project provide civil legal representation to poor people in areas such as domestic law, housing and consumer disputes.
These programs are unrelated to indigent criminal defense.
Presiding Justice Cobb said, “The Mississippi Supreme Court is totally committed to do all that we can, within the judicial power vested in us by the Constitution, to promote and assure equal access to justice for all Mississippians. We are well aware that the key component to accomplishing such equal access is adequate funding.”
Presiding Justice Cobb said, “There are far too many Mississippians who cannot afford legal representation for even basic needs. We will no longer just sit back and let someone else take care of the problem.”
North Mississippi Rural Legal Services’ 15 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 17 attorneys who serve clients from 43 counties. Offices are in Hattiesburg, Jackson, Meridian, McComb and Pascagoula. Another office will open soon in Gulfport, replacing one damaged by Hurricane Katrina.
According to 2000 Census figures, more than 500,000 low income Mississippi residents qualify for Legal Services assistance. Census numbers actually declined from the previous decade, reducing the population-based federal Legal Services Corp. funding for Mississippi.
Ben Cole of Oxford, executive director of North Mississippi Rural Legal Services, said federal funding has been cut about 20 percent since the 2000 Census figures were released. The agency’s 2003 funding was $2.3 million. Federal funding for 2006 is $1,885,000.
Federal funding also declined for the Center for Legal Services, which serves the southern half of the state. Executive Director Sam Buchanan of Hattiesburg said his 2005 budget was $2,814,569, and 2006 is $2,806,707.
Cole and Buchanan said they have been told to expect further federal funding cuts.
The Supreme Court and the Legislature have sought ways to replace the lost funding for civil legal representation of the poor. The Mississippi Legislature in 2003 created the Civil Legal Assistance Fund, which is authorized to accept money from any public or private source. The Supreme Court in March 2003 began collecting a $200 fee from attorneys who are licensed in other states and who represent clients in Mississippi courts, with the fee going to civil legal assistance for the poor. The $75,000 to be distributed this week and next will bring the total to $491,000 which has been distributed from the Civil Legal Assistance Fund since July 2003.
The Civil Legal Assistance Fund is expected to generate more money starting July 1. The Mississippi Legislature this year added a $5 fee to each civil case filed in circuit and chancery courts, with the fees going to the Civil Legal Assistance Fund.
Legal Services offices also receive money from Interest on Lawyer Trust Accounts. IOLTA involves the deposit of small dollar amounts or short-term funds held in trust by lawyers for their clients. Some of the interest is used for grants to Legal Services programs. Declining interest rates in recent years shrank the IOLTA fund. The Mississippi Supreme Court on May18 ordered mandatory participation by lawyers in the IOLTA program, effective Jan. 1, 2007. Participation had previously been voluntary. Other states which have made participation mandatory have seen increases in collections.
The Mississippi Supreme Court in March 2005 also revised the Rules of Professional Conduct for lawyers, allowing lawyers to donate money in lieu of their time for pro bono work. The money will be used by the Mississippi Bar to provide civil legal assistance to the poor.
No state tax dollars are involved in any of the funding efforts.
Presiding Justice Cobb said, “We look forward to being able to channel these new funds to those in need.”
She praised the efforts of North Mississippi Rural Legal Services, “working long hours, with overwhelming case loads, to provide legal assistance to those who are unable to provide for themselves. We very much appreciate the work that they do.”
Cole said, “We really appreciate the Supreme Court for taking the lead in recognizing the substantial cut in funding to the Legal Services program and the impact it has on the judicial system and access to justice for poor people in the state of Mississippi. The Supreme Court has taken the lead in trying to find additional monies to replace at least some of the loss of federal funding. This helps us to be able to continue to operate and not cut services.”
Law students from the University of Mississippi School of Law assist North Mississippi Rural Legal Services as interns and volunteers. The students work under the supervision of a practicing attorney, Cole said. The work assists the Legal Services office as well as the students in their training.
Cole said, “They are able to gain insight into Legal Services and the needs of poor people and at the same time they are able to get some hands-on training such as interviewing clients and doing legal research on real legal issues.”
Cole said North Mississippi Rural Legal Services also hopes to get more assistance from private practice attorneys through the Volunteer Lawyers Project. He would like to be able to utilize their time in answering a Legal Services hotline. The hotline number is 1-800-498-1804.