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ABA recognizes Mississippi Bar for conducting free legal clinics statewide

August 28, 2019

The American Bar Association recently recognized statewide efforts across Mississippi to provide civil legal representation to the poor.

The ABA has named the Mississippi Bar as the recipient of the 2019 Harrison Tweed Award. The award recognizes bar associations that have made extraordinary efforts to improve civil legal services or indigent defense services available to people living in poverty.

In 2018, more than 450 Mississippi lawyers provided more than 1,300 hours of free legal services to 850 Mississippians in need. Legal clinic events were organized and supported by the Mississippi Access to Justice Commission, chancellors and their staffs in every judicial district in the state, the Mississippi Volunteer Lawyers Project, Legal Services offices and local bar associations.

The award-winning effort was born in the First Chancery Court District of north Mississippi in 2015. Chancellor Jacqueline Mask worked with the Access to Justice Commission, Mississippi Volunteer Lawyers Project, the University of Mississippi School of Law Pro Bono Initiative and local bar leaders to schedule a free legal clinic in every courthouse in the eight counties of the First Chancery District. Free family law clinics held in Aberdeen, Booneville, Corinth, Fulton, Iuka, New Albany, Pontotoc and Tupelo provided assistance to low income people in matters such as divorce, child support, guardianship, emancipation and name change.

Judge Mask, co-chair of the Access to Justice Commission, believed that the same approach could be applied to meet the urgent civil legal needs of poor people across the state.

With the full support of the Mississippi Supreme Court and a work force of volunteer lawyers, free legal clinics were held in all 20 Chancery Court districts across the state during 2018.

udge Mask said, “I am so proud that the attorneys in the First District and across the state have been recognized for their tireless support of the free legal clinics. I appreciate their willingness to volunteer at clinics and help those who cannot afford legal representation.”

The involvement of private practice attorneys as volunteers has been crucial to the efforts to improve poor people’s access to the courts. Access to Justice Commission Executive Director Nicole McLaughlin of Tupelo said, “We are thankful to have so many attorneys who are willing to give time to assist those who are in need of representation.”

The state’s two Legal Services organizations lack the staff and resources to represent all those who seek their services. In Mississippi, there is one legal aid attorney for every 21,000 people who qualify, McLaughlin said.

Private practice attorneys who volunteer their time at civil legal clinics help full the unmet legal needs of the poor. “The statewide legal clinic initiative has helped to fill this gap in Mississippi's legal system. It provides a valuable resource and opportunity for those who cannot afford an attorney to get help with a variety of cases,” McLaughlin said.

The effort this year is expected to surpass that of 2018. At least 834 people have received assistance at more than 45 free legal clinics that have been conducted this year across the state, McLaughlin said.

At least 11 more free legal clinics are scheduled. The next ones in North Mississippi are set for Sept. 30 in Iuka, Oct. 29 in Pontotoc and Nov. 12 in Tupelo.

The schedule of upcoming clinics across the state is at this link: https://courts.ms.gov/Legal/CivilLegal.php.

The Harrison Tweed Award is given on behalf of the American Bar Association Standing Committee on Legal Aid and Indigent Defendants and the National Legal Aid and Defender Association.

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