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

Justices to present $150,000 from Civil Legal Assistance Fund

January 31, 2008

Members of the Mississippi Supreme Court will soon deliver checks totaling $150,000 to civil legal assistance programs which help poor people seek access to justice.

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 presentations include:

Feb. 4 at 10 a.m., Justice Ann H. Lamar will present a check to North Mississippi Rural Legal Services at that organization’s Clarksdale branch office at 606 DeSoto Avenue.

Feb. 4 at 10 a.m., Chief Justice James W. Smith Jr. will present a check to the Mississippi Volunteer Lawyers Project at the Mississippi Bar Center at 643 North State Street in Jackson.

Feb. 7 at 11 a.m., Justice Jess H. Dickinson will present a check to the Mississippi Center for Legal Services in McComb. The presentation will be made at the Martin Luther King Community Center at 601 Martin Luther King Drive in McComb.

The distribution includes:

• $42,825 to North Mississippi Rural Legal Services;

• $42,825 to the Volunteer Lawyers Project of the Mississippi Bar;

• $64,350 to the Mississippi Center for Legal Services.

Chief Justice Smith said, “In continuing our support for legal service to the poor, the Supreme Court of Mississippi is committed to the goal of making access to justice available to all our citizens.”

Justice Dickinson, who is involved with efforts to increase poor people’s access to civil legal services through the Access to Justice Commission, said, “I am proud of the judiciary in Mississippi, and the efforts to properly fund our legal services organizations. I am proud of the lawyers who are taking cases, without charge, to provide quality legal services to those who live in poverty, including children, single mothers, and the elderly.

“In the context of the thousands and thousands of people who live in poverty in Mississippi, the check we are presenting is small, and it certainly isn’t enough, but it helps.

“Funding legal services for the poor should be one of the highest priorities of the Legislature, the Supreme Court, and the public. When the poor and the working poor are denied the basic protection of the law, and the constitutional guarantee of equal access to the courts and to justice, we fail as a country and as a government. And if we do it long enough, and the denial of equal justice under the law is pervasive enough, we will crumble,” Justice Dickinson said.

Justice Lamar said, “It is a pleasure to personally deliver this check to North Mississippi Rural Legal Services. These people have worked diligently through the years to provide legal services to people in north Mississippi who would otherwise be without access to our justice system. As a Court we are committed to doing all that we can to help in their efforts. Providing greater access to all of our citizens is vital.”

Civil Legal Assistance Fund distributions are becoming more frequent as the fund generates more money to assist poor people with their civil legal needs.

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 fees 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 $5 special assessment has increased the amount of money available to assist poor people with civil matters.

Since the fund was created in 2003, $1,364,663 has been distributed to the Legal Services entities and the Volunteer Lawyers Project.

No tax dollars are involved.

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.

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 do not handle indigent criminal defense.

North Mississippi Rural Legal Services provides civil legal assistance for poor people in 39 counties. Offices are in Clarksdale, Greenville, Oxford, Tupelo and West Point. The Mississippi Center for Legal Services serves clients from 43 counties. Offices are in Gulfport, Hattiesburg, Jackson, Meridian and McComb.

If Legal Services staff can’t handle the case, they may refer the person to a local private attorney or to the Volunteer Lawyers Project, which attempts to match the low income person needing legal services with a private practice lawyer willing to handle a case for free.