The Access to Justice Commission and two Legal Services agencies announced this week that free legal aid providers are available to assist low income people with civil legal needs like family law, housing and consumer issues.
The COVID-19 pandemic forced Legal Services to close its physical offices to the public, but Legal Services attorneys are available by telephone to assist low income people. The statewide hotline for Legal Services is 1-800-498-1804.
North Mississippi Rural Legal Services is staffed by 17 attorneys who represent clients in 39 counties in the northern half of the state. The Mississippi Center for Legal Services is staffed by 21 attorneys who represent clients in 43 counties, covering the southern half of the state.
Civil legal assistance may include matters such as bankruptcy, debt collections, evictions, foreclosure defense, education issues, employment issues, divorce, child support, adoptions, guardianships, domestic violence, elder abuse, expungements, emancipation of minors, powers of attorney and wills. Legal Services attorneys also may assist with issues such as denial of public assistance benefits, Medicaid and Medicare.
The pandemic is expected to increase the need for legal aid for the poor. “About a fourth of our population lived at or below the poverty level before this pandemic began,” said Nicole McLaughlin, executive director of the Access to Justice Commission. “What’s going to happen is that indigent population is going to grow so much that the need is going to be great. What we want people to know is there are options for free legal aid in Mississippi and those offices are open and they are ready to assist.”
The income threshold to qualify for assistance from a Legal Services attorney is 125 percent of federal poverty guidelines. That’s an individual annual income of less than $15,950, a two-person household earning less than $21,550 annually, a family of three living on less than $27,150, a family of four with annual earnings of less than $32,750. There are circumstances in which eligibility can be up to 200 percent of the federal poverty level. There is no income cap for services involving domestic violence.
Access to Justice and Legal Services officials want to make the public aware of the availability of assistance, since Legal Services’ ordinary means of public outreach has been halted due to the pandemic. Public educational forums on topics such as domestic violence, sexual assault, elder abuse and housing rights ceased, according to Mississippi Center for Legal Services Executive Director Sam H. Buchanan Jr. North Mississippi Rural Legal Services ceased doing community presentations regarding taxes, foreclosure prevention, wills and power of attorney, said Executive Director Ben T. Cole II.
Buchanan said, “Any time there is a loss of income or loss of resources, it often times results in an increase in legal needs. It’s a lot more difficult because we can’t reach out to organize and go into the community to let people know about the services.” Outreach efforts now rely on social media.
Phone calls from people seeking assistance have declined to Legal Services and the Access to Justice Commission. The Legal Services call intake center closed for two weeks while Legal Services reorganized staff to work from home. Calls did not resume at their previous level after the call center reopened. Buchanan and Cole said their offices are eerily quiet. They believe the actual needs are increasing, but people may not know where to seek help.
Cole said, “We do expect to see an increase in evictions, various consumer matters, abuse and domestic violence cases.” They may also see an increase in people seeking wills and powers of attorney.
McLaughlin said, “I think people are still trying to survive and figure out what to do. A lot of times people don’t recognize the problems they are facing as legal issues.”
The statewide hotline for Legal Services is 1-800-498-1804. For more information, go to the Legal Services website at MsLegalServices.org, or the Access to Justice Commission website at Msatjc.org.