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Free legal aid helps clients, employers, the community and the economy

By BECKY GILLETTE

The stock market has reached record highs, unemployment has remained low, and the U.S. economic outlook is considered to be very healthy. But with Mississippi having the highest percentage of people in the country living in poverty—about one in five—many people in the state still struggle to pay for basic necessities. When something unexpected comes up like a legal need, the expense can be crushing.

Sam Buchanan

Even with the good economy, there has been no decrease in the demand for civil legal services seen at the Mississippi Center for Legal Services Corp. (MCLSC) and the North Mississippi Rural Legal Services, private, non-profit law firms that provides free civil legal assistance to eligible low-income people in the state.

“We encounter a lot of what we call working poor,” said MCLSC Executive Director Sam H. Buchanan, Jr., who works out of offices in Hattiesburg. “The economy may be improving for a lot of people. But, for poor people, not that much has changed.  They are not making enough money to lift themselves out of poverty. Many can’t afford to address basic needs such as housing and transportation, let alone things like legal issues that come up. People may suffer a loss of income or a catastrophic medical condition that can cause all kinds of downward spiraling for the entire family.”

When people can’t afford legal fees, sometimes they try to maneuver through the legal system without the assistance of an attorney. People can represent themselves in court. Buchanan said progress has made been made in making the legal system easier to navigate for the average person.

“But much more needs to be done,” Buchanan said. “Most people without some legal knowledge can’t maneuver the legal system. An unmet legal needs study conducted by the Legal Services Corporation, our primary funding source, concluded that for every two persons who seek legal assistance, one must be turned away because of lack of resources. Our firms or programs provide civil legal assistance to eligible low-income people with a threshold for eligibility of no more than 125 percent of the poverty level. We can go up to 200 percent of poverty level for specific extenuating circumstances.

“There are people who do not qualify for our services who also struggle to pay legal fees and who unfortunately fall between the cracks because they do not qualify for our services and cannot afford to pay private counsel.”

Not only people, but their employers and the community benefit when residents have access to legal help. Buchanan said an economic impact study done a couple years ago that showed the availability of free legal aid has a positive economic impact on clients, the community and the economy.

Private attorneys in the state do pro bono work that helps meet the need. But law firms aren’t the only businesses than can volunteer. Different types of businesses can provide services such as counseling and accounting that may be needed by the clients helped by legal aid.

“We can use different aspects of business experience,” said NMRLS Executive Director Ben Thomas Cole, II, Oxford, whose firm provides services to the northern part of the state. “If businesses feel they could contribute to delivery of services, please contact us.”

Lack of legal representation can have an adverse impact on workplace absenteeism.

“Legal problems can actually make you sick,” Cole said. “That is absolutely true. Employees will be healthier and more reliable if their legal needs are being met.”

There are other programs that allow NMRLS and MSLSC to expand services to people who don’t meet poverty guidelines. An example is grants from the Area Agency on Aging used to provide legal assistance to people 60 years and older without regards to income, or foreclosure defense, which allows them to assist people facing the loss of their home through foreclosure by the mortgage holder.

Another program is a taxpayer clinic to represent people who have a controversy with the IRS whose incomes are up to 250 percent of the federal poverty guidelines.

“This is paid for by a grant from the IRS,” Cole said. “The theory behind that is it better to resolve an issue, if you can, with the IRS. We have that funding that allows us to represent people and determine if a person actually owes the money. We also have a grant to represent victims of crime, and we especially focus on victims of domestic violence or sexual assault. But we can also help people who are victims of crimes with other legal issues.”

It helps in the northern part of the state that students at The University of Mississippi School of Law are involved in providing legal clinics. Those have included an Elder Law Clinic where students work under the supervision of attorney providing legal representation. Another clinic is Will Days where the people learn why a will is important and students help people who want a will drafted.

“The other law clinic we have had a lot of success with is the Street Law Clinic,” Cole said. “It meets at local food pantries. Students go to food pantries and are available to represent people who may have a legal problem and assist in representing those individuals. We’ve had these kinds of clinics for a number of years. We work with the law school quite a bit.”

Buchanan said the rest of the state doesn’t have the same opportunities provided by working with the Ole Miss Law School, but they welcome and solicit student volunteers. They also have success with soliciting attorneys to handle cases or work in clinics through the Mississippi Volunteer Lawyers Project (MVLP).

“A significant number of attorneys volunteer their services through the MVLP and there are opportunities for other attorneys to do the same,” Buchanan said. “There are still needs that are not being met. There are not enough resources. We try to expand services all over the state through our Private Attorney Involvement Project, lawyers recruited through MVLP to handle cases pro bono and lawyers who agree to reduced fees for handling cases, usually $50 to $75 per hour.”

“That program expands our ability to represent more people we could otherwise not help,” Cole said.

The biggest area of demand is in the area of family law such as handling divorce, child custody\support, adoptions, guardianships, and emancipations. Other common areas of need include consumer collection issues, predatory lending, evictions, education, employment, foreclosures, public benefit eligibility, and wills and power of attorneys for people with physical or mental limitations.

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About Becky Gillette