By Patsy R. Brumfield/NEMS Daily Journal
Poor people may have fewer places to seek legal help if North Mississippi Rural Legal Services closes its Tupelo office.
It’s a symptom of continued cuts by Congress, says its executive director, Ben Cole of Oxford.
“The board will consider closing a branch office, which may be Tupelo,” Cole said Friday.
But he also said the board could decide to close another branch or none at all.
Local supporters of the Tupelo office say, though, that it’s in the cross hairs.
NMRLS provides legal assistance for poor people with civil problems such as evictions, divorce, child custody issues and the like.
Established in the 1960s when social reform swept across the U.S. political landscape, it first came as a training ground for law students at the University of Mississippi.
NMRLS was incorporated as an independent nonprofit corporation in 1976, receiving funds from Legal Services Corp., signed into law in 1974.
Its five offices – Clarksdale, Oxford, Greenville, Tupelo and West Point – serve clients in 39 counties.
Tupelo attorney Brian Starling, who works with NMRLS on a contract basis, said closure of the Tupelo office could hurt many people who will lose discounted legal services and advice from licensed attorneys.
“I know area attorneys do their fair share of pro bono (free) services for those who cannot afford it,” Starling said. “But, there is only so much we can do, especially since these tough economic times have increased the number of people who lack resources to hire an attorney and pay court costs.”
The agency’s 25-member board is scheduled to meet Aug. 27 with budget cuts among its agenda items.
NMRLS has been under financial pressure for years as Congress repeatedly cut its appropriation.
At its height, it had a $3-million-plus budget and 118 employees, including 32 lawyers, 34 paralegals, four legal assistants and 48 support personnel. It offered services through its Oxford headquarters and 12 branches to about 372,000 potential clients – nearly 75,000 were elderly with minimal income.
Today, NMRLS has 50 on staff with a goal of three attorneys, two paralegals and three support staff in each branch, plus headquarters administration.
The Tupelo office has one attorney and two other staff members.
Also voicing concern is Deborah Bell, a professor at the University of Mississippi Law School. She founded its Civil Legal Clinic and was its director until 2009.
“Cutting the program further will substantially impact north Mississippians’ access to the legal system,” she said last week.
Board member Brian Neely says he’ll present his colleagues with a plan to keep the Tupelo office and more – to move the headquarters operation to a new, free space in Lee County.
He said he and Tupelo Councilwoman Nettie Davis are putting together the details.
In recent years, Congress’ cuts for legal services to the poor have come under criticism. In Mississippi it’s come from the Access to Justice Commission, led by Justice Jess Dickinson.
“As the economy continues in a downward spiral, so does funding to sustain vital programming that serves the legal needs of Mississippi’s most vulnerable communities,” MAJC said in a newsletter. “This is not a North Mississippi Rural Legal Services problem – it is a national problem in our fight for equal access to justice.”
Dalton Middleton, another Tupelo attorney, said the loss of a Tupelo office “would naturally be detrimental to the area.”
“I believe the long-term good would be served if the local governments in Northeast Mississippi would team together to aid NMRLS to meet financial needs,” he said. “As fewer matters are resolved through the courts, local law enforcement will be left to deal with ongoing issues.”