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Pro bono rule change reporting period began August 1

Recently, the Mississippi Supreme Court amended the Mississippi Rules of Professional Conduct to require attorneys to report their annual hours of pro bono legal services to low-income people.

The first reporting period began August 1 and ends July 31, 2006, to correspond with the 2006-2007 bar statements to be mailed next August.

“The Supreme Court is committed to providing adequate representation for indigents and remains hopeful that by these amendments to Rule 6.1 that lawyers will all fully assist us in that commitment,” said Chief Justice James Smith.

The rule change is important because it clearly announces that providing pro bono legal services to the poor is a lawyer’s professional responsibility, and failure to fulfill that responsibility must now be reported to The Mississippi Bar, said Justice Jess Dickinson, who signed the order on March 21.

Even though participation is voluntary, the old rule recommended 50 hours per year of pro bono work. The new rule suggests a minimum of 20 hours, but adds a requisite that attorneys report their hours of pro bono work to The Mississippi Bar.

“One of the reasons for the reduction in hours was to provide Mississippi attorneys a realistic choice of actually performing legal services for the poor or making the annual $200 payment to help fund legal services programs for the poor,” said Dickinson.

Lawyers who contribute more than 20 hours per year may carry over the excess pro bono hours for up to an additional two years. The amendments also allow law firms to collectively satisfy pro bono obligations. One or more firm attorneys may handle complicated, time-consuming matters while meeting the obligations of other firm members.

“As our society has become one in which rights and responsibilities are increasingly defined in legal terms, access to legal services has become of critical importance,” read the court’s commentary to the rules. “This is true for all people … rich, poor, or of moderate means. However, because the legal problems of the poor often involve areas of basic need, their inability to obtain legal services can have dire consequences.

“The vast unmet legal needs of the poor in Mississippi have been recognized by the Supreme Court of Mississippi. The Supreme Court has further recognized the necessity of finding a solution to the problem of providing the poor greater access to legal service and the unique role of lawyers in our adversarial system of representing and defending persons against the actions and conduct of governmental entities, individuals and non-governmental entities. As an officer of the court, each member of The Mississippi Bar in good standing has a professional responsibility to provide pro bono legal service to the poor.”

The court clarified that “poor” refers not only to people whose household incomes fall below the federal poverty standard but also to the “working poor.”

Most pro bono service should involve civil proceedings where there is no governmental obligation to provide counsel. It may also be provided through legal services to charitable, religious or educational organizations whose overall mission and activities are designed primarily to address the needs of the poor.

Amanda Jones, president of The Mississippi Bar Young Lawyers Division, which is providing legal assistance to disaster victims of Hurricane Katrina, met with the Mississippi Supreme Court last week “to request that the hours spent by Mississippi attorneys providing legal assistance to disaster victims count as pro bono hours under Rule 6.1 … just to provide another incentive.”

“Most attorneys could care less whether they get pro bono credit for their time spent giving legal assistance,” said Jones. “I think the rule change is a great way to get folks motivated to spend their time helping those that can’t afford a lawyer.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at lwjeter@yahoo.com.

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