Commission Trying to Open Access to Legal Help

By: Jon Kalahar Email
By: Jon Kalahar Email

For Ben Cole of North Mississippi Rural Legal Services, the problem is not clients who need his help, it's finding enough lawyers to take up all the cases that come into his office.

"We try to represent the poorest of the poor," said Cole. "For every legal services client or case that we take, there is at least one person who seeks our services who we have to deny services."

Right now, in Mississippi there are only 32 legal services attorneys to cover all 82 counties in the state.

That's where the Access to Justice Commission comes in. It's this 25-person commission's job to raise public awareness and resources to help those who otherwise might be taken advantage of because they can not hire a lawyer. Many times that involves abused spouses and children, even the elderly.

"These are people who have no representation, no money and nowhere to turn, and it's one of our responsibilities to make sure people have access to the courts," said Cole.

But right now, the commission has to figure out how to raise funds. It will hold a series of hearings where people will testify about what happened to them and how legal services helped, make more people aware of what's going on, then take the testimony to the state legislature or U.S. Congress. The commission hopes money to help will follow. But also something else.

"To inspire the legal community, because pro bono legal services is a big part of providing legal services to people who live in poverty," said Justice Jess Dickinson of the Mississippi Supreme Court.

The process has been slow but none of these officials intends to quit. The hearings will take place in each congressional district in the state, tentatively, sometime in early 2008.

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