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Access to Justice public hearing is April 18 in Gulfport

April 9, 2008

Unmet civil legal needs of low-income Mississippians will be the topic of a public hearing April 18 at the Good Deeds Community Center at 15101 Madison Street in Gulfport. The Mississippi Access to Justice Commission will hear testimony from 4 p.m. to 6:30 p.m.

The hearing is the first of a series of regional public discussions about the need for civil legal services for the poor. Public hearings are expected to be conducted in each of the state’s Congressional districts. Other hearing dates and locations have not yet been finalized.

U.S. Congressman Gene Taylor will host the public hearing in Gulfport. Mississippi Supreme Court Justice Jess H. Dickinson will serve as moderator.

The purpose of these hearings is to create a record detailing the magnitude of the problems faced by low-income Mississippians as a result of their lack of access to legal assistance in a broad range of civil matters.

Justice Dickinson said, “Thousands of our citizens are denied the basic right of equal access to the courts because they are poor and cannot afford an attorney. The Supreme Court cannot, and will not, sit by in tacit acquiesce. We ordered these hearings so we can begin to understand the true scope and nature of the problem, and then move to solve it.”

Justice Dickinson, who is the court’s liaison to the Legal Services community, said, “People who live in poverty have little or no voice. Ordinarily, they just suffer in silent desperation. It is the duty of the other branches of government to address many of the problems faced by the poor, but when it comes to the denial of equal justice, the duty to act falls squarely on the Supreme Court.”

The Supreme Court created the Access to Justice Commission in June 2006 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 the need for civil legal services to the poor in Mississippi. The Supreme Court called for a series of regional public discussions about the need for civil legal services for the poor.

The hearings will be transcribed. The Access to Justice Commission will use the testimony as part of the basis for recommendations to the Supreme Court, the Mississippi Legislature and the Mississippi Bar to increase the availability of legal assistance in civil matters. Recommendations could include proposed legislation to increase funding for legal services programs for the poor and court rule changes.

Many lawyers already donate time or money to pro bono services. The Commission hopes that the findings from the public hearings will encourage more lawyers to provide pro bono legal services to low-income Mississippians.

The Access to Justice Commission has issued invitations to speak to approximately 16 people on the Gulf Coast. They include attorneys who provide legal services to the poor, people who have been assisted by legal services providers, bar leaders, representatives of non-profit organizations which serve the poor, an advocate for the rights of the disabled, a domestic violence shelter program representative, clergy, community leaders and judges. Those invited to speak have first-hand knowledge of the basic legal needs of low-income Mississippians in areas including domestic violence, safe and affordable housing, and challenges regarding persons with physical and emotional disabilities.

A listening panel of about 12 people, including judges, attorneys and community leaders from the Gulf Coast, will ask questions and discuss the testimony.

The last half hour of the program will be reserved for public comment from the audience. A sign up sheet will be available at the start of the hearing. The Commission will listen to as many people as may be accommodated in the time set aside for public comment. Members of the audience are asked to limit their presentations to two minutes.

The hearing will not address legal assistance in criminal matters.

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