December 26, 2017 10:01:15 AM
Many poor Mississippians lack access to legal services. And a new statewide effort is seeking to change that, with Lee County and northeast Mississippi serving as models.
Although more than 20 percent of the state's population lives at or below the poverty level, only one legal services lawyer is available to every 18,000 citizens, as reported by the Daily Journal's Cristina Carreon.
Those residents require legal services for a number of reasons, though some of the needs may not be obvious. When free clinics are offered, the most common cases relate to custody, divorce and guardianships.
For instance, a particular need for legal service is seen with guardianships, so new guardians can enroll their wards in school quickly. This is a bureaucratic hurdle often faced by grandparents who become primary caregivers of their grandchildren.
Such needs are why the state Supreme Court formed the Mississippi Access to Justice Commission in 2006. Its mission was to assist in obtaining legal services for poorer Mississippians.
Thus far, however, northeast Mississippi's first chancery district is the only one in the state that offers free clinics in each of its counties.
Senior Chancellor Jacqueline Mask has worked to expand the program outside her district. And now Mississippi Supreme Court Justice William Waller is working on a statewide initiative to expand the clinics into more counties in other districts.
The free clinics in the first chancery district began in 2013, mainly helping Lee County residents. They were initially partnered with the Mississippi Volunteer Lawyers Project, a nonprofit legal aid organization. But it has grown through the years with the addition of community meetings and a partnership with the Family Resource Center of North Mississippi.
The clinics expanded into every county in the first district in 2015. Clinics are held at a courthouse at least once a month, and twice in Lee County.
And the service should not be taken for granted. With filing fees and lawyers charging from a few hundred dollars a case to a thousand for cases like guardianship or uncontested divorce, the program provides legal services valued at $90,000 in seven district counties. Lee County is higher at $121,000 per year.
We gladly highlight the efforts of all those who have been involved in these free clinics and salute them for the time and services they have provided through the years to those in need. It is yet another example of northeast Mississippi residents deliberately working together to meet a need in the community.
We are encouraged to hear about efforts to expand such clinics to counties throughout the state, and know those efforts would do well to learn from the fine example set by the first chancery district.
The Northeast Mississippi
Daily Journal, Tupelo
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