Supreme Court amends rule to encourage legal help for the poor

October 24, 2007

Lawyers who do not actively practice but are licensed members of the Mississippi Bar and attorneys licensed in other states may do free legal work for the poor under a rule amendment adopted by the Mississippi Supreme Court on Oct. 18.

The Court in a commentary to the rule change said its purpose “is to permit and encourage attorneys who do not engage in the active practice of law in Mississippi to provide legal representation to persons who cannot afford private legal services.”

The rule change will allow inactive members of the Mississippi Bar and lawyers licensed in other states to volunteer their time with non-profit legal aid organizations.

Presiding Justice William L. Waller Jr. signed the order adopting the amendment to Rule 46 of the Mississippi Rules of Appellate Procedure.

The Court adopted the rule amendment creating a provision for “pro bono publicus” attorneys at the urging of the Mississippi Bar.

Adam Kilgore, general counsel for the Mississippi Bar, said in a petition for the rule change, “The bench and Bar have been concerned for a number of years about the delivery of legal services to members of our community who cannot afford private legal services.”

The recent rule change grew out of the volunteer legal representation in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, said Justice Jess Dickinson, who is the Court’s liaison to the legal services community. The Supreme Court in a Sept. 9, 2005, order authorized lawyers licensed in other states to practice in Mississippi for the limited purpose of providing free legal assistance to victims of Hurricane Katrina.

More than 400 out of state lawyers did volunteer legal work in Mississippi after the hurricane, said Shirley Williams, executive director of the Mississippi Volunteer Lawyers Project.

The Oct. 18 rule change broadens the scope of the free legal representation beyond Katrina-related matters.

“This new rule allows a lawyer who is duly licensed and qualified to practice law in some other state to come into Mississippi and assist in handling legal matters for the poor,” Justice Dickinson explained. “If lawyers in Alabama or Tennessee or any other state wanted to come in and take cases pro bono to assist Legal Services with their impossible caseload, we now welcome them to do so.”

“The rule also allows professors at our two law schools to handle pro bono cases without the necessity of being admitted to the Mississippi Bar,” Justice Dickinson said.

The rule change would also apply to retired attorneys who no longer actively practice, but who maintain a license.

The court rule requires that the volunteer legal work must be done in association with a qualified legal services provider. Justice Dickinson said that qualified legal services providers include the state’s two Legal Services entities and the Volunteer Lawyers Project of the Mississippi Bar.

Williams said the Volunteer Lawyers Project has a waiting list of people in need of civil legal assistance. “It will open the doors for many more people to get legal help,” Williams said. “These are people who otherwise would never see the inside of a courtroom.”