Free legal advice to Mississippians who can’t afford an attorney goes online later this month, its sponsors say.
“It’s a way to bring information to the public with answers to civil legal matters,” said Tiffany Graves, executive director of the Mississippi Access to Justice Commission, which is partnering with the Mississippi Volunteer Lawyers Project to offer the service.
The online service, ms.freelegalanswers.org, will provide information about common legal problems, such as divorce, child custody, housing, landlord-tenant disputes, land issues, trust and estate matters, will and probate matters, wage and employment issues, bankruptcy, and consumer disputes, Graves said.
Chancellor Lawrence Primeaux of Meridian, who presides over the full range of civil cases in east-central Mississippi’s District 12, sees the online site as “a good start” for public questions.
“Lack of access to our courts can be a crippling problem for poor people,” he said. “Whether it’s as simple as a guardianship for grandparents to get a grandchild in their care into school or a no-fault divorce, or a property dispute, these are the kinds of matters that can stymie people’s lives and even rob them of what little they have.
“This legal advice line can help them identify and understand those complications so that they can decide how to address them and whether they can afford to,” Primeaux noted.
Gayle Carpenter-Sanders, executive director for Mississippi Volunteer Lawyers Project, said the new website is important to “provide the first step for individuals in determining whether they even need access to the judicial system.”
Not every matter is a legal issue, Sanders notes, and not every legal matter requires a lawyer.
“This website is designed to give direction, which is what (Mississippi Volunteer Lawyers Project) hopes to achieve by being involved with this project,” she said.
Nearly 700,000 Mississippi citizens live near the poverty line and qualify for publicly funded legal services. But for these people, only 22 attorneys are assigned in Mississippi to address whatever civil legal issues arise.
Mississippi Volunteer Lawyers Project matches poor people in need of legal services with private practice lawyers willing to donate their time.
Graves noted the new legal information site addresses only civil legal questions, not criminal matters. The site provides referral information for anyone with any legal needs.
The state supports a system of local public defenders for criminal matters.
Information about the website will be promoted through local libraries and courthouse clerks offices. The online civil-issues site launches as the Access to Justice Commission hosts its 10th anniversary summit Aug. 25 at the Mississippi Supreme Court building in downtown Jackson. Keynote speaker for the anniversary is Lisa Foster, director of the Office for Access to Justice in the U.S. Department of Justice.
The Mississippi Access for Justice Commission was established in 2006 with funding from the Mississippi Supreme Court, the Mississippi Bar and Bar Foundation to seek ways to close the civil justice gap in the state and improve its civil legal services delivery system.
Graves, who also serves on the board of directors of Mississippi Today, said a 2011 change in the professional rules of conduct for lawyers allowed the most significant change so far toward expanding civil-law help to poor citizens.
The change allowed lawyers to “offer limited scope, short-term help” to the poor without locking the lawyers into long-term relationships, she said. It also brought more attorney volunteers into the state’s talent pool to help participate in advice hotlines, write letters and provide information to people who don’t understand how the state’s legal system works, Graves said.
Sanders and Graves said the next step toward expanding the public’s access to the civil justice system is in providing enough personal training and education so that many people can represent themselves in local courts on a limited basis.
Judge Primeaux agreed, saying the “next logical step” for the public to gain better access to civil-issue problems would be what he calls a “form bank” tailored to Mississippi courts that self-represented poor people could use to handle simple legal problems.
“There just aren’t going to be enough pro bono (free) lawyers to go around, so we hope more online information and more training can expand the public’s knowledge,” Graves said. “This is not a business opportunity for lawyers.”