Commission begins work to improve civil legal access for the poor

September 13, 2006

Thousands of poor people have no financial means to go to court to seek help for civil legal issues, a member of the Mississippi Supreme Court told a diverse group of more than 30 people gathered Wednesday, Sept. 13, to discuss access to justice and work toward solutions.

“There are thousands and thousands of people out there who you don’t know, who you will never know, who are depending on you. Don’t lose sight of that,” Mississippi Supreme Court Justice Jess H. Dickinson told the organizational meeting of the recently created Mississippi Access to Justice Commission. “You have a Court that is concerned about this problem and motivated to do whatever we can.”

Chief Justice James W. Smith Jr., who signed the order on behalf of the Court creating the Commission in June, said, “No one in here is going to accept ‘no’ when it comes to access to justice for all people.”

The Commission on Wednesday discussed the existing system of civil legal services for the poor. Members talked about raising awareness about needs for legal services among the public and among attorneys who can help. They discussed the need to develop resources to pay for legal services.

Members of the judiciary, a representative of the Governor, legislators, business and community leaders, members of the clergy and others who make up the 24-member Access to Justice Commission met with veteran legal services providers for about five hours at the Mississippi Bar Center in Jackson on Wednesday.

Justice Dickinson said the group was selected to include diverse talents and experiences. The Supreme Court looked for people who have passion for service to the poor, and access to resources to bring about change.

Among the Commission members are Choctaw Tribal Supreme Court Chief Justice Rae Nell Vaughn, U.S. District Judge Louis Guirola Jr., Enterprise Corporation of the Delta President and CEO Bill Bynum, Mississippi NAACP President Derrick Johnson, Jackson First Baptist Church Senior Pastor Rev. Stan Buckley, and Jackson College Hill Baptist Church Pastor Rev. Hosea Hines, among others.

Commission Co-Chair Joy Lambert Phillips of Gulfport, immediate past president of the Mississippi Bar, said the membership includes many non-lawyers. “It is not the problem of the legal system alone,” she said.

In Mississippi, between a third and half of the people who apply for Legal Services aid are turned away, said Jayne Buttross, chair of the Mississippi Legal Services Foundation. There are about 550,000 poor people eligible for services, and about 30 Legal Services attorneys available in Mississippi to provide those services.

One in five Mississippians and one in every three children live below the poverty level, said University of Mississippi School of Law Professor Deborah Bell, director of the law school’s Housing Law Clinic. Slightly more than half of the households headed by women live in poverty. And many of those people who don’t meet the longstanding federal definition of poverty level don’t have enough money left over after living expenses to pay for legal needs, Bell said.

Justice James E. Graves Jr. said, “We don’t have enough money to meet all of the needs of the poor people. To make sure that every person who needs access to justice in Mississippi can have it – that’s the goal.”

While federal funding for legal services for the poor has shrunk, efforts are underway to fill the gap with private practice lawyers. Approximately 1,500 Mississippi lawyers have agreed to volunteer their time to provide free legal services to needy people, said attorney Ben Piazza of Jackson, chair of the Board of Directors of the Mississippi Volunteer Lawyers Project. The state has approximately 6,000 lawyers who are eligible to provide pro bono services. The Volunteer Lawyers Project is recruiting to get more attorneys involved.

Jackson attorney Carlton Reeves, president-elect of the Magnolia Bar Association, said, “There are gaps and people are falling through those gaps. Attorneys hold the keys to the courthouse door.”

Members of the Commission expressed concerns about connecting needy people to sources of legal help. Many poor people don’t know where to turn for legal help in the first place, Justice Dickinson said. While the private bar advertises the services of lawyers in special practice areas, there is no broad public awareness effort to reach poor people who can’t pay a lawyer.

However, public awareness campaigns don’t work if there aren’t lawyers standing ready to accept those cases, said attorney Ben Cole of Oxford, executive director of North Mississippi Rural Legal Services. Advertisements in years past created a flood of calls when there weren’t enough lawyers to provide services. His office has 12 attorneys and seven paralegals to provide services to an eligible population of 220,000 in 39 north Mississippi counties.

Self-representation is difficult, Professor Bell said. “The court system is complicated, it’s very difficult to get into, and it’s intimidating.”

Part of the solution may be to work toward simplifying the legal process, suggested Hancock Holding Co. and Hancock Bank Executive Vice President and CEO John Hairston of Gulfport. If proceedings were simpler, lawyers available to handle cases could do more.

Circuit Judge Margaret Carey-McCray of Greenville and Chancery Judge Denise Owens of Jackson said they regularly witness the lopsided struggles of people who try to represent themselves because they can’t afford to hire a lawyer. Both previously worked as attorneys for organizations which serve the poor. Judge Owens is Commission co-chair.

Judge Carey-McCray said, “It’s a very difficult job to be on the bench and to have litigants before you that are unevenly matched.” But judges who direct those people through the legal process can’t cross the line as advocates to help them.

The Commission is expected to meet next in November, although a date has not yet been set. The group at that time is expected to hear a more detailed assessment of legal services currently being provided and begin to develop plans to address unmet needs.

Forest attorney Constance Slaughter-Harvey looked around the room at the diverse group and observed that the gathering represented progress toward something she had dreamed of for 40 years. “I truly feel optimistic,” Slaughter-Harvey said.