More than 130 seek legal help at Hinds County Family Law Clinic
July 26, 2019
A Hinds Chancery Courtroom and the third floor lobby were packed on Friday as people waited to get free legal help to establish guardianships for school enrollment, expunge records and file for divorce.
The Hinds County Family Law Clinic was scheduled to help people who are too poor to hire an attorney. Forty people preregistered and more than 90 came as walk-ins. Forty-two volunteer lawyers worked with clients in courtrooms and conference rooms. Four judges walked the crowded hallways, conferring with attorneys and signing documents if cases were able to be concluded. Before 11:30 a.m., clinic organizers started turning people away, as they were not able to accommodate any more. The clinic was scheduled to end at 1 p.m., but lawyers and judges stayed until after 4 p.m. to offer help, according to Mississippi Volunteer Lawyers Project Executive Director Gayla Carpenter-Sanders.
The turnout was about twice what was expected, said Chancellor Crystal Wise Martin.
“It’s absolutely overwhelming and amazing. We find people every day in court that need assistance, and a lot of the matters are not very difficult,” Chancellor Wise Martin said.
But even simple legal matters can be daunting for people who can’t afford to hire a lawyer. The legal requirements of filing correct documents with proper pleadings mean that many unrepresented litigants have to make multiple trips to court to try to conclude a matter. Volunteer lawyers at the free legal clinic helped draft documents and gave legal advice to help move cases to conclusion.
Hinds County Chancellor Tiffany Grove said, “We have seen a substantial increase in pro se litigants, which demonstrates the need for this today, and the attendance just confirms that.”
Chancellor Grove and others would like to schedule the free legal clinics more often, based on the need. “Our hope is that we are going to do it quarterly,” she said.
Chancellor Wise Martin agreed. “I would love to have these quarterly.
A follow-up clinic is scheduled for Oct. 18. Hinds County residents who were not able to conclude their legal matters on July 26 can return to court on Oct. 18. New pro se applicants also will be able to seek services.
Among the clients who sought services on Friday was a grandmother who needed guardianships for five of her six grandchildren. Their mother died of breast cancer in 2016, Carpenter-Sanders said. The children range in age from 4 to 21. The grandmother obtained a judge’s signature on five guardianships. She will be able to enroll the school-age children next week.
The Chancery Court waived the $150 per child guardianship filing fees, Carpenter-Sanders said. It was a huge help for the grandmother, who supports her family on an income of $1,200 a month, with $900 of that from a disability benefit.
The annual guardianship clinic has been held in Hinds County since 2008. It is always scheduled a few days before the start of the school year to assist grandparents and other family members who need to obtain legal guardianships of children to enroll them in school. Chancellor Denise Owens started the annual clinic as a way to avoid delays for enrolling children in school.
Three attorneys from Jackson Public Schools were at the courthouse on Friday to answer questions from parents and guardians on enrollment and other issues. JoAnne Nelson Shepherd, general counsel for Jackson Public Schools, said, “The District has a push to increase enrollment. In the Jackson Public School District, we are trying to make sure we register as many children as possible.” The school year will begin Aug. 7.
This is the first year that the annual Hinds County guardianship clinic was expanded for other family law needs such as uncontested irreconcilable differences divorce, custody, visitation, name changes, birth certificate corrections, uncontested emancipation, power of attorney, simple wills and expungements.
Chancellor Owens told one clinic client with divorce documents in hand, “Go file it. You’re free.”
Volunteer attorneys came from the private sector as well as state and local government. Chad King regularly represents indigent parents in Hinds County Youth Court. On Friday morning, he worked on divorce cases and was available to help with expungements. People with criminal records have a hard time getting hired. Some crimes are eligible to be expunged, giving people clean records. “It gives them access to better jobs. It gives them every opportunity that everyone else has. It’s a fresh start,” King said.
Attorney Seth Shannon worked with a man who had prior arrests without convictions. Shannon helped the man prepare documents to seek expungement of those old charges. “I’m helping him to move on with his life and not be saddled with these charges,” said Shannon, who took a vacation day from the Department of Human Services to work at the legal clinic.
Law students helped interview clients and draft documents under the supervision of attorneys. “It’s a teaching moment, actually putting into practice all that legal education” said Edward Kennebrew of Jackson, in his third year of studies at Mississippi College School of Law.
The event was organized by the Hinds County Chancery Court and the Mississippi Volunteer Lawyers Project in partnership with Mission First and Mississippi College School of Law, the Mississippi Center for Legal Services, Forman Watkins & Krutz LLP, the Capital Area Bar Association and AARP Mississippi.
Carpenter-Sanders said, “We had the backing of the Judiciary. We are fortunate in Hinds County to have four chancellors who want these services done and are willing to help recruit attorneys to get this done.”
The Mississippi Volunteer Lawyers Project and the Access to Justice Commission are working to schedule free civil legal assistance clinics for residents of all 82 counties, as they did in 2018. A list of free legal clinics across the state is at this link:
The free family law clinics across the state are designed to give people enough basic legal advice and directions so that they can handle simple legal matters on their own in Chancery Court. Attorneys at the legal clinics will help clients prepare documents, give limited legal advice and help them get ready to go to court on their own.
Clinic topics and limitations are posted on the clinic schedule on the Mississippi Judiciary website at https://courts.ms.gov/Legal/CivilLegal.php, or on the Mississippi Volunteer Lawyers Project website at http://www.mvlp.net/pro-se-legal-clinic-schedule/.
For more information about the subject matter of a particular clinic, and to determine eligibility for free legal assistance, call or e-mail the Mississippi Volunteer Lawyers Project at 601-882-5001 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or contact the Mississippi Access to Justice Commission at 601-960-9581 or email@example.com.