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

Supreme Court creates Mississippi Access to Justice Commission

June 29, 2006

The Mississippi Supreme Court, in an effort to promote equal access to the courts, has created the Mississippi Access to Justice Commission to address civil legal representation of the poor.

The Commission includes business and community leaders, clergy, and representatives from all three branches of state government.

The Commission’s objective is to develop a unified strategy to improve access to justice for the poor.

Mississippi Supreme Court Justice Jess H. Dickinson of Gulfport, the Court’s liaison to the legal services community, said, “This Commission’s overriding objective is to make sure that every citizen of this state, regardless of economic status, has reasonable access to justice and that no one is excluded because they don’t have the money to hire an attorney.”

Justice Dickinson said, “It is my very strong opinion that the Supreme Court bears the ultimate and final responsibility to see to it that the justice system is fair for everyone.”

Chief Justice James W. Smith Jr. entered an order on behalf of the entire Court establishing the Mississippi Access to Justice Commission. Chief Justice Smith stated, “This Court, by the appointment of this Commission, continues our efforts on behalf of providing sufficient legal representation for the poor in Mississippi.”

The order, filed on Thursday, June 29, says that “this Court is committed to the principle that justice should be available to all persons without regard to economic status and...this Court recognizes that a substantial number of Mississippians live at or below the federally-established poverty threshold, and face substantial barriers to the justice system....While many organizations in Mississippi are committed to improving the delivery of legal services to the poor, no single entity is widely accepted as representative of all such organizations.”

The order creating the Mississippi Access to Justice Commission directed the Commission to:

• identify the current and future needs of the legal services community in providing access to justice to the poor in Mississippi;
• develop and establish a strategic statewide plan for delivery of legal services to the poor in Mississippi;
• develop strategies and ideas to increase resources and funding for access to justice in civil legal matters, and to make recommendations to appropriate entities to ensure that the resources and funding are applied to the areas and organizations of greatest need;
• work to maximize the wise and efficient use of available resources, including development of local, regional and/or statewide systems that encourage the coordination of resources and funding;
• develop and implement initiatives designed to expand civil access to justice;
• work to reduce barriers to the justice system by addressing existing and proposed court rules, procedures, and policies that affect access to justice for poor Mississippians;
• monitor and evaluate the effectiveness of the statewide system and services providers, and periodically evaluate the progress made in fulfilling their respective responsibilities.

The Mississippi Access to Justice Commission will address civil legal representation of the poor. It will not deal with indigent criminal defense.

Mississippi is the twenty-third state to form a state-wide commission which brings together representatives of organizations dedicated to the legal rights of the poor.

The Supreme Court appointed as Commission Co-chairs Hinds County Chancery Judge Denise Owens of Jackson and Mississippi Bar President Joy Lambert Phillips of Gulfport. Phillips said, “The Access to Justice Commission will provide the needed structure to bring together the various organizations involved in the delivery of legal services to the poor.”

Judge Owens said, “This is a way of renewing our commitment to justice for all people.”

Judge Owens said the Commission will work to deal with current problems as well as anticipate and plan for future needs.

An emerging problem is language barriers, Judge Owens said. Courts need to be prepared to deal with the needs of a changing population, as well as anticipate other needs, she said.

A pressing need now is making legal representation available to people who can’t afford to hire a lawyer. Judge Owens said she sees many people attempting to represent themselves in her court in domestic matters. They are at a disadvantage because they don’t understand how the legal system works and are not familiar with court rules.

Justice Dickinson said personal finances shouldn’t affect access to the courts, but they do. “If you have an unemployed, single mother not being paid child support, how is she going to hire a lawyer? If you have somebody who is poor and who is being wrongfully evicted, or their automobile is being wrongfully repossessed, who speaks for these people?”

North Mississippi Rural Legal Services and the Mississippi Center for Legal Services have paid staff lawyers who represent poor people in civil legal matters such as domestic disputes and housing and consumer issues. The Mississippi Volunteer Lawyers Project of the Mississippi Bar enlists the aid of private practice attorneys who are willing to represent clients for free. But directors of all those entities say they have far more calls for service than lawyers available to meet the needs.

Federal funding is the main source of support for the two Legal Services entities, and appropriations continue to shrink. The state Legislature and the Mississippi Supreme Court have attempted to compensate. Although the Mississippi Legislature appropriates no funds for legal services for the poor, it created the Civil Legal Assistance Fund in 2003. This legislation matched a Supreme Court rule adopted that same year requiring a $200 fee from attorneys licensed in other states who wish to handle a legal matter in Mississippi. These fees are disbursed by the Supreme Court to the Legal Services organizations. This year, the Legislature authorized a $5 fee for each civil case filed in circuit and chancery courts, effective July 1, with the fees going to the Civil Legal Assistance Fund. The Supreme Court in 2005 ordered lawyers to report their hours of pro bono work for the poor, and allowed lawyers to donate money in lieu of their time. The Court in an order signed in May and effective Jan. 1, 2007, makes lawyer participation mandatory in the Interest on Lawyer Trust Accounts (IOLTA) program. A majority of the trust account interest goes to civil legal representation of the poor.

The newly created Mississippi Access to Justice Commission will pool the talents of business and community leaders to develop new and creative ways to help fund legal services for the poor.

“If you need creative ideas, get creative people,” Justice Dickinson said.

The 23 voting members of the Mississippi Access to Justice Commission include: former Supreme Court Justice and former Mississippi Bar President Reuben Anderson, Jackson; Court of Appeals Judge Donna M. Barnes, Tupelo; Rep. Ed Blackmon, Canton; Rev. Stan Buckley, senior pastor, First Baptist Church, Jackson; Bill Bynum, President and Chief Operating Officer of Enterprise Corporation of the Delta, Jackson; Circuit Judge Margaret Carey-McCray, Greenville; Supreme Court Justice Jess H. Dickinson, Gulfport; Sunflower Mayor Betty Fowler; Supreme Court Justice James E. Graves Jr., Jackson; U.S. District Judge Louis Guirola Jr., Gulfport; John Hairston, Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer of Hancock Holding Company and Hancock Bank, Gulfport; Rev. Hosea Hines, pastor of College Hill Baptist Church, Jackson; Paul Hurst, Chief Counsel to Gov. Haley Barbour, Jackson; Mississippi NAACP President Derrick Johnson, Jackson; Amanda Jones, President, Young Lawyers Division of the Mississippi Bar, Jackson; Sun-Herald President and Publisher Ricky Mathews, Biloxi; Hinds County Chancery Judge Denise Owens, Jackson; Mississippi Bar President Joy Lambert Phillips, Gulfport; Carlton Reeves, President-Elect, Magnolia Bar Association, Jackson; Constance Slaughter-Harvey, civil rights attorney and former Assistant Secretary of State, Forest; Sen. Gray Tollison, Oxford; Kenneth W. Williams, President, Refreshments Inc. and Refreshments of Tennessee, Corinth; and Mississippi Economic Council President Blake Wilson, Jackson.

Non-voting ex-officio commission members appointed by virtue of their offices include: Martha Bergmark, President and Chief Operating Officer, Mississippi Center for Justice; Sam Buchanan, Executive Director, Mississippi Center for Legal Services, Hattiesburg; Jayne Buttross, Chair, Mississippi Legal Services Foundation, Jackson; Ben Cole, Executive Director, North Mississippi Rural Legal Services, Oxford; Dean Samuel M. Davis, University of Mississippi School of Law, Oxford; Jaribu Hill, Executive Director, Mississippi Workers Center, Greenville; Ben Piazza, Chair, Board of Directors, Mississippi Volunteer Lawyers Project, Jackson; and Dean Jim Rosenblatt, Mississippi College School of Law, Jackson.

A copy of the Court’s order is available on the Supreme Court’s web site at: Click Here.