Lawyers provide more than 50,000 hours of pro bono service
Mississippi lawyers provided 54,582 hours of free legal representation and contributed $150,583 toward legal services for the poor during the past year, according to the Mississippi Bar’s preliminary report to the state Supreme Court.
The figures are incomplete, representing reporting by 54 percent of the lawyers who are licensed in the state. The hours of pro bono service and legal services contributions were compiled from the reports of 3,646 lawyers. Mississippi has 6,630 lawyers licensed to practice. Additional reports are expected to increase the number of hours and contributions.
Mississippi Supreme Court Chief Justice James W. Smith Jr. said, “These initial, early statistics demonstrate the ongoing commitment of the lawyers of this state in responding to the challenge of the Supreme Court to help improve poor people’s access to justice in Mississippi’s court system.”
Justice Jess H. Dickinson, the Court’s liaison to the legal services community, said, “This is an amazing result and is great news for legal services. We have committed, responsible lawyers in Mississippi who do feel the responsibility to provide legal services for the poor. It means that they are getting closer to the goal of having the same access to legal services as those with financial means.”
The Supreme Court, in an effort to increase attorney participation in providing free legal services for the poor, made reporting of pro bono services mandatory for lawyers who are licensed in Mississippi. Providing pro bono services is voluntary. The Court suggests at least 20 hours of pro bono service a year to fulfill a lawyer’s professional responsibility. The rule change also gave lawyers an option of contributing $200 a year toward free legal services for the poor in lieu of performing pro bono hours.
Justice Dickinson said, “The responsibility to make sure that those who live at or below the poverty level in Mississippi have equal access to our courts falls squarely on the Supreme Court. We are delighted that this rule change which the court enacted recently has resulted in a substantial number of hours of pro bono work by Mississippi lawyers, and also in this surprisingly large amount of money which will be used for the direct provision of legal services to the poor.”
The changes to Rule 6.1 of the Mississippi Rules of Professional Conduct were adopted by the Supreme Court in March 2005. The Mississippi Bar’s reporting cycle covers August 1, 2005, through July 31, 2006.
Justice Dickinson said the number of pro bono hours and contributions could increase significantly as more attorneys file their reports with the Bar. “We are very optimistic,” he said.
The Supreme Court has made other changes intended to improve poor people’s access to the courts. 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. Since July 2003, $491,000 has been paid from the Civil Legal Assistance Fund. The money is distributed periodically among the Mississippi Center for Legal Services, North Mississippi Rural Legal Services and the Volunteer Lawyers Project of the Mississippi Bar.
The Mississippi Legislature added a $5 fee to all civil court filings with the money going to Civil Legal Assistance Fund for the poor. The law went into effect July 1, 2006. The Administrative Office of Courts reported $26,647 collected through Sept. 15, 2006.
On Jan. 1, 2007, participation in the Interest on Lawyer Trust Accounts (IOLTA) program will become mandatory for most private practice attorneys. Participation had previously been voluntary. Some of the interest helps provide funding for civil legal representation for poor people. The IOLTA program involves small dollar amounts and deposits of short duration which aren’t feasible to invest for individual clients.
All programs cited involve legal assistance in civil matters. These programs are unrelated to indigent criminal defense.