North Mississippi Rural Legal Services

Celebrating their 50th anniversary

By Becky Gillette

It was a far different world in the Delta in 1966, particularly when it came to low-income people having access to legal services. There was a great need, especially considering more than 86 percent of non-white residents lived below the poverty line.

A group of concerned University of Mississippi faculty worked to develop a law school curriculum with a focus on the legal problems of the poor. North Mississippi Rural Legal Services (NMRLS) was born. Originally called Lafayette County Legal Aid, NMRLS was considered by its organizers as a combination of legal services and a  teaching program.

“NMRLS provides attorney representation and advocacy to ensure equal access to justice for the most vulnerable members of our society,” says Ethel Gilmore, director of development for NMRLS. “Through constant training, self-analysis and community involvement, we have provided to eligible people the highest quality of legal and technical assistance, which improves their daily quality of life, while contributing to the attainment of social, economic, and legal equality. This was our mission 50 years ago, as it is today.”

NMRLS opened its first office in Oxford, Mississippi on August 11, 1966. Other offices were opened in Holly Springs, Batesville, West Point and Greenwood. Later, offices were also opened in Tupelo, Cleveland, Greenville, Clarksdale, Lexington and Grenada. The last office to open was in Tunica.

In 1976, NMRLS was incorporated, receiving government funding from the national Legal Services Corporation, with its express purpose being to provide free civil (not criminal) legal services, education, and advocacy for people in poverty. After government cutbacks, NMRLS, which was headquartered in Oxford, consolidated its offices.

NMRLS now operates four offices:  Oxford, West Point, Clarksdale, and Greenville. In total, 13 staff attorneys in north Mississippi, NMRLS non-attorney workers, and volunteers provide services to low- income residents in 39 counties, including the Delta.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there are 330,000 low income individuals with income at or below 125 percent of the federal poverty level, making them eligible for free legal aid within the 39-county service area.

Gilmore says that  the need is great.

“With a shortage of staff, for every person we serve, we have to turn another person away,” Gilmore said.

The anniversary is being celebrated throughout the year. The kick-off was held in January at the University of Mississippi School of Law. Special guests were Professor Emeritus John Robin Bradley, Presiding Justice of the Mississippi Supreme Court Jess H. Dickinson and Constance Slaughter-Harvey. In attendance were state legislators, attorneys, law school faculty and other supporters. The program was hosted by attorney Harrison McIver, CEO of Memphis Area Legal Services Inc. Special remarks were made by Willie J. Perkins Sr., state legislator and chairman of the NMRLS Board of Directors.

The second event, the Historic Litigation Conference, also held at the law school, brought back key NMRLS leaders from the past. Those included the first NMRLS executive director, Attorney Michael Trister, former Mississippi governor Ronnie Musgrove, Judge Catherine Farris-Carter, Judge Denise Owens, and top NMRLS attorneys including Alvin O. Chambliss. Speakers also included: Roy Campbell II, president, The Mississippi Bar Association; and Karen Peairs, president-elect, The Magnolia Bar Association. Special guest speaker was  Wilhelm Joseph, executive director of Maryland Legal Aid Bureau. He also served as executive director of NMRLS from 1976-1982.

The climax of the 50th Anniversary Celebration will be the NMRLS Awards Dinner & Gala, which takes place at 7 p.m. Oct. 29, 2016, at the BancorpSouth Convention Center in Tupelo. Keynote speaker for the event is attorney Paulette Brown, president of the American Bar Association.

Residents across the state apply for services by primarily using the toll-free number 1-800-498-1804 or by applying online through the websites www.nmrls.com and www.mslegalservices.org.