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

Access to Justice Commission to meet Feb. 25

February 22, 2008

The Mississippi Access to Justice Commission during a Feb. 25 meeting in Jackson will review developments in a public awareness program designed to call attention to the civil legal needs of poor people.

The Commission’s Public Awareness Committee will provide a preview of a locally produced DVD which documents some of the assistance provided by the state’s Legal Services offices. The DVD, which is in the final stages of editing, includes interviews with members of four families who tell their compelling personal stories. Although they could not afford to pay for legal assistance, Legal Services attorneys were able to help them deal with issues involving child custody, Social Security and medical benefits and contractor fraud in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

The DVD also describes the unmet legal needs of thousands of other poor people who cannot be accommodated due to lack of funding for Legal Services programs.

Jackson First Baptist Church Pastor Rev. Stan Buckley, chair of the Public Awareness Committee, said, “People are never going to be moved to act until they hear” about the legal problems poor people face.

Mississippi Supreme Court Justice Jess H. Dickinson, the court’s liaison to the Legal Services community, said the DVD is “an inspirational tool to get people thinking about something they would rather not think of.”

The Access to Justice Commission will meet at the Mississippi Bar Center at 643 North State Street in Jackson. Commission members and guests will gather at 9:45 a.m. Feb. 25 for informal discussions over coffee. Commission Co-Chairs Chancery Judge Denise Owens and Joy Lambert Phillips will call the meeting to order at 10 a.m. Members of the media are invited. The meeting is scheduled to last until 1 p.m.

The Commission meeting agenda includes, in the scheduled order of presentation:

• an update on efforts to develop ways of assisting people who, for economic reasons, seek to represent themselves in civil matters in court. Court of Appeals Judge Donna M. Barnes, chair of the Pro Se Subcommittee, and University of Mississippi School of Law professor Deborah Bell will address the Commission.

• a report from attorney Phillip Thomas, Chair of the Mississippi Bar Delivery of Legal Services Committee;

• a report from attorney Judy Wiener on the Mississippi Bar Foundation’s grant process;

• a preview of the Public Awareness Committee DVD;

• a report from Access to Justice Commission Resource Development Committee Co-chair Amanda Jones about an update to be delivered to members of the Legislature;

• a progress report from consultant Bonnie Allen about scheduling a series of public hearings. The hearings, called for by the Mississippi Supreme Court, are expected to be held starting this spring in all Congressional districts. The public hearings are intended to document the civil legal needs of poor people in Mississippi and to encourage public officials, lawyers in private practice and individual citizens to respond to those needs.

• a report from Mississippi Center for Justice attorney Crystal Utley about free legal services provided to victims of Hurricane Katrina through the Mississippi Volunteer Lawyers Project;

• an update from Mississippi Volunteer Lawyers Project Executive Director Shirley Williams;

• an update on the development of a call center to direct people who qualify for free legal services to professionals who can provide assistance.

The Access to Justice Commission was created by the Mississippi Supreme Court in June 2006 to develop a unified strategy to improve poor people’s access to the civil courts. The Commission is tasked to investigate the need for civil legal services to the poor in Mississippi, and to evaluate, develop and recommend policies, programs and initiatives which will assist the judiciary in meeting needs for civil legal services to the poor.

The Commission is made up of 24 voting members and eight ex-officio members. The Commission includes members of the judiciary, a representative of the Governor, legislators, business and community leaders, and members of the clergy. Representatives of entities which provide legal services to the poor are ex-officio members.

The Mississippi Access to Justice Commission works to address civil legal representation of the poor. It does not deal with indigent criminal defense issues.