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

Supreme Court to distribute Civil Legal Assistance Funds

March 15, 2007

Members of the Mississippi Supreme Court will deliver checks totaling $280,000 on Monday, March 19, 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:

• $120,120 to the Mississippi Center for Legal Services;

• $79,940 to North Mississippi Rural Legal Services;

• $79,940 to the Volunteer Lawyers Project of the Mississippi Bar.

Mississippi Supreme Court Chief Justice James W. Smith Jr. will present checks to the Mississippi Center for Legal Services and to the Mississippi Volunteer Lawyers Project at 10 a.m. March 19 in his office on the fourth floor of the Gartin Justice Building in Jackson.

Justice George C. Carlson Jr. will present a check to North Mississippi Rural Legal Services at 10:30 a.m. March 19 at the Legal Services office at 5 County Road 1014 in Oxford.

Chief Justice Smith said, “This Court continues its commitment to the poor and impoverished who could not afford civil counsel but for these funds. We are especially grateful to the Legislature and Governor Barbour for making additional funds now available by statute.”

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 ordered collection of a $200 fee from out-of-state attorneys who represent clients in Mississippi courts, with the fee going to civil legal assistance for the poor. The Mississippi Legislature in July 2006 added a $5 fee to each civil case filed in circuit and chancery courts, with the fees going to the Civil Legal Assistance Fund.

The fee on civil case filings increased collections for the Civil Legal Assistance Fund. The $280,000 to be distributed March 19 is the largest amount yet since funds began to be distributed from the Civil Legal Assistance Fund in July 2003. A total of $771,000 has been paid from the fund since it was created in 2003.

The statute which created the Civil Legal Assistance Fund, Mississippi Code Section 9-21-43, says that “The monies appropriated shall be distributed to eligible legal services programs based on the percentage of poverty population within the program service area, consistent with the formula used by the Legal Services Corporation.”

Attorneys employed by the state’s two Legal Services entities provide civil legal representation to poor people in areas such as domestic law, housing, landlord-tenant disputes, land issues, trust and estate matters, will and probate matters, wage and employment issues, bankruptcy, and consumer disputes.

Justice Carlson said, “Having been a circuit judge in north Mississippi for 19 years prior to coming to the Supreme Court, I am keenly aware of the valuable services rendered by the North Mississippi Rural Legal Services to our citizens who are in need of civil legal services. Ben Cole and his staff, who are overworked and underpaid, are the epitome of dedicated servants who unselfishly give of their time and talents to those who otherwise would be unable to have access to our justice system. Over the past few years, our legal services corporations in Mississippi have lost literally millions of dollars in federal funding and I am thankful that our Mississippi Legislature has provided the vehicle for the Supreme Court to direct these fees received from out-of-state attorneys to the North Mississippi Rural Legal Services, the Mississippi Center for Legal Services, and the Volunteer Lawyers Project of the Mississippi Bar.”

Staffing remains the biggest need for both Legal Services agencies. The Mississippi Center for Legal Services has 16 attorneys who serve clients from 43 counties. Offices are in Gulfport, Hattiesburg, Jackson, Meridian and McComb. North Mississippi Rural Legal Services has 15 lawyers who provide civil legal assistance for poor people in 39 counties. Offices are in Clarksdale, Greenville, Oxford, Tupelo and West Point.

A statewide Legal Services hotline directs callers to the nearest office. The number is 1-800-498-1804.

Ben Cole II of Oxford, executive director of North Mississippi Rural Legal Services, said that the hotline has allowed more people to reach Legal Services assistance. But it stretches the staff thin to answer hotline calls and provide advice via telephone while also providing services to clients in the office and handling court appearances.

Cole said, “We are actually serving more people, but it puts a strain on us to try to reach that balance of providing both types of services....The greatest need at this point is staff.”

According to 2000 Census figures, more than 500,000 Mississippi residents live below the poverty level. There are more people needing civil legal representation than there are Legal Services attorneys available to represent them, and Legal Services agencies are prohibited from involvement in certain kinds of cases.

Sam Buchanan, executive director of the Mississippi Center for Legal Services, said Legal Services offices have to prioritize the cases they take. “That means there are people who may have valid legal issues who we cannot assist,” he said.

The Mississippi Volunteer Lawyers Project seeks to bridge the gap. The project matches poor people in need of legal services with private practice lawyers willing to donate their time.

The number of people seeking help from the Volunteer Lawyers Project more than doubled in 2006, compared to 2005. The Volunteer Lawyers Project opened 1,542 cases involving needs for legal services in 2005. In 2006, there were 3,691 cases deemed to be in need of legal services, according to MVLP Executive Director Shirley Williams. Between January and March 6, 2007, an additional 708 cases were opened.

Hundreds of lawyers have responded by signing up to take cases. The Volunteer Lawyers Project has 1,832 lawyers on its list. However, there are more cases waiting than there are lawyers waiting to take them. The Volunteer Lawyers Project is seeking to recruit more attorneys willing to help.

Representation provided by the Volunteer Lawyers Project, the Mississippi Center for Legal Services and North Mississippi Rural Legal Services is in civil legal matters. The programs are unrelated to indigent criminal defense.