Legal services for poor to cut staff, clients

JACKSON — A lack of funding has prompted a legal services program for the poor to make cuts staff and reduce the number of people for whom it handles cases.

Mississippi Volunteer Lawyers Project executive director Shirley Williams tells The Clarion-Ledger her program’s annual budget, which also includes funding from other sources, has dropped from about $700,000 in 2011 to about $550,000 this year.

“We are a small program so any funding loss hurts,” Williams said.

Williams said the program also would cut back on the number of days and hours of its legal hotline.

“It will probably be cut to three days a week,” Williams said.

MVLP provided free legal services to 6,830 people last year, down from 10,000 it served the previous year, and received more than 3,000 calls over the last two years on the hotline, assisting just about 2,000 of those callers.

The organization is a joint project of the Mississippi Bar Association and the state’s two Legal Services programs, the Mississippi Center for Legal Services and North Mississippi Rural at The Mississippi Volunteer Lawyers Project. The two programs have reported they will lose a combined $820,000 in federal funding this year.

Part of MVLP’s funding reduction is the result of fewer federal dollars, less money from interest on lawyers trust accounts that goes toward helping to pay for legal services for the poor, loss of $50,000 it received last year to help low-income residents with questions about filing claims resulting from the 2010 Gulf oil spill, and a loss of other one-time donations.

MVLP matches low-income clients with private lawyers willing to provide free legal representation. Volunteer lawyers handle civil matters including guardianships, adoptions, and child support, but the program had been paying court filing fees and other court-related costs.

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