message to Mississippi Access Com’n: “think self-help”

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The Supreme Court of Mississippi has issued an Order Establishing The Mississippi Access to Justice Commission (via HALT eJournal, Aug. 28, 2006).   According to the Court’s press release (June 29, 2006), the Commission is “comprised of business and community leaders, clergy and representatives from all three branches of government,” and it will seek to “develop a unified strategy to improve access to justice for the poor.”

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With half of its population at or below the Federal poverty level, Mississippi has long had a serious crisis in access to justice.   Despite that crisis, the State has apparently relied solely on legal services organizations (with no direct state funding) and lawyer pro bono efforts to provide better access for the poor.        

  For example, Mississippi is not included in the NCSC directory of Self-Help/Information Centers and Resources, and the State has a “No links” designation on The Pro Se Law Center’s directory of court-based services and websites for self-represented litigants. 
Despite the Access Commission’s promise to bring together “creative people” to develop new and creative access solutions, SHLEP is concerned that their exclusive focus will be on providing free or low-cost lawyers for the poor — an approach that is doomed to fall far short of the Commission’s goal (see the discussion here and there at ethicalEsq).  Why are we worried?  Neither the Court’s Order, nor its Press Release, mentions self-help programs as possible solutions, despite an extensive, seven-point list of the Commission’s mission and tasks.          

The omission seems quite telling, because the Mississippi Order prominently points to Resolution 23 [“Leadership to Promote Equal Justice’] of the Conference of Chief Justices, to explain its own “primary leadership responsibility to preserve and protect equal justice and take action necessary to ensure access to the justice system for those who face impediments they are unable to surmount on their own.”  Resolution 23 “encourages individual members in their respective states to establish partnerships with state and local bar organizations, legal service providers, and others to:                 

1. Remove impediments to access to the justice system, including physical, economic, psychological and language barriers; and         

2. Develop viable and effective plans, to establish or increase public funding and support for civil legal services for individuals and families who have no meaningful access to the justice system; and

black check  3. Expand the types of assistance available to self-represented litigants, including exploring the role of non-attorneys.

Although the Mississippi Order repeats the language of the first two goals of Resolution 23 within its list of Access Commission tasks and powers, the third goal of Resolution 23 — to “Expand the types of assistance available to self-represented litigants” — is nowhere mentioned in the much-longer Mississippi list.  Moreover, a look at the Mississippi Bar Association website reveals no commitment of resources for self-help programs, although there are significant pro bono efforts to help the poor.  [The page listing very basic Law You Can Use articles advises that “To know more about your own specific situations, consult your attorney for legal guidance.”  Also, the Bar’s volunteer telephone Legal Line gives “free legal information” to the public, but “If legal representation is needed the caller is urged to contact a private attorney or, if the caller feels they cannot afford an attorney, they are referred to the appropriate governmental agency for assistance.”]  

podium As Your Editor stated at ethicalEsq in 2004, there is no solution to the access gap for low- and middle-income consumers that does not embrace the significant use of self-help  information, technology and facilitation, especially through court-related programs — both online and on site. (See, e.g., Richard Zorza‘s paper on Client Needs and Potential, 2000).   We hope we’re reading the mandate and focus of the Mississippi Access Commission incorrectly — and that the “changing landscape” described by Paula Hannaford Agar in her report Helping the Pro Se Litigant: A Changing Landscape, will soon include Mississippi.  Agar asserts:

“In recognition of the reality of litigants’ needs, the courts and the legal community have slowly shifted from insistence on full-representation for every litigant as a fundamental requirement of equal justice to a more pragmatic approach, offering information and limited counsel for those litigants who are capable of managing their own cases and reserving full-representation for those with more complex cases or fewer personal resources.”

      Mississippi’s Access Committee can bring about the needed shift in attitude heralded in “Changing Landscape,” if it embraces the concept of facilitated self-help, and makes it an integral part of its “unified strategy to improve access to justice for the poor.” 

      Mississippi’s Access Committee can bring about the needed shift in attitude heralded in “Changing Landscape,” if it embraces the concept of facilitated self-help, and makes it an integral part of its “unified strategy to improve access to justice for the poor.” 

      Mississippi’s Access Committee can bring about the needed shift in attitude heralded in “Changing Landscape,” if it embraces the concept of facilitated self-help, and makes it an integral part of its “unified strategy to improve access to justice for the poor.” 

      Mississippi’s Access Committee can bring about the needed shift in attitude heralded in “Changing Landscape,” if it embraces the concept of facilitated self-help, and makes it an integral part of its “unified strategy to improve access to justice for the poor.” 

      Mississippi’s Access Committee can bring about the needed shift in attitude heralded in “Changing Landscape,” if it embraces the concept of facilitated self-help, and makes it an integral part of its “unified strategy to improve access to justice for the poor.” 

      Mississippi’s Access Committee can bring about the needed shift in attitude heralded in “Changing Landscape,” if it embraces the concept of facilitated self-help, and makes it an integral part of its “unified strategy to improve access to justice for the poor.” 

      Mississippi’s Access Committee can bring about the needed shift in attitude heralded in “Changing Landscape,” if it embraces the concept of facilitated self-help, and makes it an integral part of its “unified strategy to improve access to justice for the poor.” 

      Mississippi’s Access Committee can bring about the needed shift in attitude heralded in “Changing Landscape,” if it embraces the concept of facilitated self-help, and makes it an integral part of its “unified strategy to improve access to justice for the poor.” 

      Mississippi’s Access Committee can bring about the needed shift in attitude heralded in “Changing Landscape,” if it embraces the concept of facilitated self-help, and makes it an integral part of its “unified strategy to improve access to justice for the poor.” 

      Mississippi’s Access Committee can bring about the needed shift in attitude heralded in “Changing Landscape,” if it embraces the concept of facilitated self-help, and makes it an integral part of its “unified strategy to improve access to justice for the poor.” 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

1 Comment

  1. Stephen Francoeur

    October 1, 2006 @ 2:05 pm

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    Your post included my name among a list of law librarians who blog. I think you may have me confused with Steven Cohen, who is a law librarian and who blogs at http://www.librarystuff.net/

    I am, by the way, a librarian who blogs, but I work at a college library in New York City.

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