Closing the Civil Justice Gap
1,327,370 Mississippians — or 44% of the state’s population — live in households in lower-to-moderate income brackets where legal assistance is unaffordable. Mississippi ranks first in America for people living in poverty, with approximately 696,000 Mississippians living at or below the federal poverty level. The number of Mississippians living in poverty has increased by a whopping 72% since 2000.
The overall goal of the Commission is to provide over arching, unifying support for the legal aid system in Mississippi.
The Mississippi Access to Justice Commission (“the Commission”) was created by the Mississippi Supreme Court on June 28, 2006 to develop a unified strategy to improve access to the civil courts for the poor. Mississippi was the 23rd state to appoint such a commission. The Commission is tasked with investigating the need for civil legal services to the poor in Mississippi, and evaluating, developing and recommending policies, programs and initiatives that will assist the judiciary in meeting needs for civil legal services to the poor. The overall goal of the Commission is to provide over arching, unifying support for the legal aid system in Mississippi. This support includes exploring means for increased funding and other resources, raising awareness of the need for and value of legal assistance, reducing barriers to access to civil justice and improving the quality and efficiency of the delivery system.
At the time the Mississippi Commission was created, our state ranked 49th in overall funding per person for civil legal services—a mere $11.18. One of the most debilitating problems for poor people and communities is the lack of access to lawyers and the legal system in civil matters impacting fundamental human needs. Legal needs studies conducted by the American Bar Association and other groups consistently document that only 20% of the civil legal needs of low- and moderate-income people are met. The percentage is even less in Mississippi. Mississippi’s Legal Services Programs are woefully understaffed and underfunded. Only thirty-four (34) attorneys currently staff the state’s two legal aid programs. In 2014, the programs served 22,839 people. Conservative estimates show that our legal aid programs should be serving 200,000–250,000 annually. The legal aid programs rely on federal funding more than any other programs in the country, with 75% of funding for the Mississippi Center for Legal Services Corporation and North Mississippi Rural Legal Services, Inc. coming from the Legal Services Corporation in 2014.
The Commission was established to be the single unifying entity to bring together the providers of civil legal services to address Mississippi’s civil justice service gaps. The Commission is currently divided into three Committees— Delivery System Committee, Resource Development Committee and Public Awareness. The Committees can include non-Commission members. The Delivery System Committee oversees the development of an expanded and improved system for providing civil legal services to low-income people. The Resource Development Committee is tasked with developing a long-term plan to increase funding to civil legal services programs. Finally, the Public Awareness Committee works to educate the Bar, governmental leaders and the public about the scope of the need for legal services. The Commission also recently added two new Sub-Committees, Medical-Legal Partnership and Faith-Based Initiatives to explore opportunities for collaboration with partners in the medical and religious communities, respectively.
In addition to the work of its committees, the Commission also regularly sponsors local access to justice events to encourage county bar associations and community leaders to work together to ensure access to the judicial system for all on a local level. The Commission has proposed amendments to court rules to make it easier for low-income individuals to gain access to the civil courts. It has also proposed rules to make it easier for attorneys to volunteer with civil legal services programs. The Commission is currently developing virtual forms to assist the state’s growing population of self-represented litigants in a variety of civil matters. In addition, the Commission is always seeking new opportunities for funding for civil legal aid, including through legislative appropriations and other funding sources.
It is important to note that the Commission provides support to civil legal service providers. Unlike individuals who have committed criminal acts who are guaranteed a right to counsel, people involved in civil legal matters, are not. The provider-members of the Commission provide those with civil matters the legal tools they need to protect their families, homes and health to help assure that they also have access to the court system.
In Mississippi, the demand for civil legal aid far outstrips the resources available and as a result, many are navigating high-stakes legal situations on their own. With our legal services programs turning away two clients for every one who seeks help, the challenges are great. In spite of the challenges, the Commission is gradually improving the delivery system and reaching more people who need legal assistance. The work will not be done until everyone—regardless of income—has equal access to Mississippi’s civil court system and the state’s civil legal service providers have the capacity—financial and otherwise—to serve everyone who enters their doors with a legal issue for which their programs have been established to help. The work continues and, fortunately, an impressive number of attorneys have joined the Commission by regularly answering the call to service through pro bono engagement and similar outreach to citizens in need.