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

Chief Justice Awards honor Access to Justice leaders

June 30, 2010

The Mississippi Supreme Court will present its highest honor, the 2010 Chief Justice Award, to three people who have worked tirelessly to improve access to justice for the poor. This year’s award will be shared by Justice Jess H. Dickinson of Gulfport, Hinds County Chancery Judge Denise Owens of Jackson, and former Mississippi Bar President Joy Lambert Phillips of Gulfport.

Mississippi Supreme Court Chief Justice Bill Waller Jr. will present the awards July 10 at the conclusion of the Mississippi Bar Convention in Destin, Fla.

Chief Justice Waller said, “Our justice system must be accessible to everyone, regardless of economic status. The individuals whom we honor with these awards are the driving force behind efforts to improve poor people’s access to our courts.”

Chief Justice Waller credited Justice Dickinson as being the catalyst of the Access to Justice movement in Mississippi. Justice Dickinson was instrumental in founding the Access to Justice Commission. As a charter member, he has worked tirelessly to find new funding sources, increase pro bono representation by encouraging attorneys to represent poor people for free, and develop ways to assist people who represent themselves in legal proceedings.

Judge Owens and Phillips have served as co-chairs of the Commission since its inception four years ago. Under their leadership, the Commission has raised public awareness of the civil legal needs of poor people, and worked to identify ways to address those needs. The Commission has conducted five public hearings.

The Supreme Court created the Access to Justice Commission in June 2006 to develop a unified strategy to improve access to the civil courts for the poor. 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.

Judge Owens has worked to improve access to justice for all people since she was a law student working at a Legal Services elderly law clinic in Washington, D.C. After she completed law school, she was a Legal Services staff attorney in Jackson. In her more than 20 years on the bench in the Chancery Court of Hinds County, she has seen the struggles of poor people as they try to navigate the complex legal system on their own. Her understanding of the problems and her commitment to finding solutions has helped guide the work of the Access to Justice Commission.

Phillips, general counsel and a corporate executive vice president of Hancock Bank, is a former Mississippi Bar president. The Mississippi Women Lawyers Association selected Phillips, a past MWLA president, as Outstanding Woman Lawyer of the Year in 2006.

Phillips has given hundreds of hours of her time to bring about changes for the benefit of poor people. She brings tireless energy, dedication and attention to every detail to the work of the Access to Justice Commission. Her organizational and management skills have tapped the talents of Commission members from diverse backgrounds.

Justice Dickinson is a catalyst for change to improve access to justice for poor people. He joined the Supreme Court’s Rules Committee shortly after he came onto the Court in 2004. At his urging, the Supreme Court revised the Rules of Professional Conduct in March 2005, allowing lawyers to donate money in lieu of their time for pro bono work, and requiring lawyers to report their pro bono hours. In his interactions with Legal Services and Access to Justice leaders in other states, Justice Dickinson observed their ability to increase funds for civil legal representation through mandatory participation in Interest on Lawyer Trust Accounts. At his urging, the Mississippi Supreme Court made IOLTA participation mandatory in 2007.

As he began to attend conferences on access to justice issues in other states, he became convinced that Mississippi needed such a commission to spearhead efforts to improve civil legal assistance. He was instrumental in the creation of the Access to Justice Commission in 2006, bringing together lawyers, judges, legal services providers, representatives of the business community and clergy to work toward solutions.

Justice Dickinson has been a very public face and outspoken voice for the work of the Commission across the state and across the country. He has spoken to groups who are developing Access to Justice commissions in other states, and to regional and national gatherings which seek to improve civil legal access for the poor. He has moderated discussions at public hearings and addressed the Legislature about the civil legal needs of poor people. His passion for Access to Justice has inspired others who have a heart for helping the poor.