Commission Increases Court Access For Poor

By Jon Kalahar - email

JACKSON, MS (WLOX) - Under the constitution, every American is granted the right to our justice system. But the reality is, thousands of Mississippians don't make enough money to hire an attorney to represent them, and their cases are never heard.

For more than two years now, the Access to Justice Commission has been working to erase that barrier to our courts.

In October of 2006, the state Supreme Court created the commission to improve low income Mississippians' ability to be heard in the state's civil courts. And now, word of the group's work is getting out.

"In the last six months with the economy downturn, there are even more people seeking help," commission co-chair Joy Lambert Phillips said.

Justice Jess Dickinson said the problems facing these Mississippians are serious, and magnified because they don't have proper legal counsel.

"They have no money, no access, no power, no connections when a problem comes along. And we're talking about problems with children, abuse, spouses, improper evictions," said Justice Dickinson.

Now the threat of the foreclosure crisis could have sweeping effects among the state's disadvantaged.

"We haven't yet seen the worst of foreclosures that we expect to result from those circumstances," said Martha Bergmark, President of the Mississippi Center for Justice.

Bergmark said Mississippi has the highest rate of sub-prime lending in the country. And without help, many families could see the dream of owning their own home turn into a nightmare.

"We do know people feel a certain stigma about the fact that they may be in trouble with their loans," said Bergmark.

Bergmark said the important point to remember is to talk to an attorney early. It may just take a simple phone call or letter to get things straightened out.

Through the work of this commission, pro-bono work has increased across the state.

"I've been on the Supreme Court almost five years now and I've watched it come and go, and I can tell the level of the participation of lawyers is way up," said Dickinson.

A legal services call center has been established to answer any legal questions and point individuals in the right direction based on their problem. That number is 1-800-498-1804.

And you can also call the Mississippi Volunteer Lawyers' Project to get help at (601) 960-9577.