Legal office worried over merger idea

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, December 12, 2000

Officials with the Natchez office of Southwest Mississippi Legal Services are worried about a possible merger with Central Mississippi Legal Services in Jackson.

&uot;We handle cases that (the central office) will not take,&uot; said Stan &uot;Bucky&uot; Merritt, who has been the senior staff attorney at the Natchez office for several weeks. &uot;We handle cases a lot more efficiently than they do.&uot;

The federally-funded organizations offer free or low-cost legal counsel to eligible Mississippians. The central division represents nine counties and the southwest division represents 10 counties, with offices in McComb and Natchez, Merritt said.

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But despite the possibility of consolidation, Linda Robinson, executive director of Central Legal Services, thinks it is too early to become concerned.

&uot;No final decision has been made,&uot; she said. &uot;We are discussing the matter to determine if a merger or consolidation of our programs would be (more effective in) serving clients in our respective areas.&uot;

Officials will meet in Jackson on Wednesday and Thursday to discuss the matter.

Robinson said more than 90 percent of funding for the offices comes from the federal government through the national legal services organization.

In recent years, national officials have mandated the state organizations to consider mergers. The idea is to increase efficiency, with East and Southeast Mississippi Legal Services already taking that step, Robinson said.

But Merritt said he is not pleased with the prospect and he thinks it will hurt his clients.

Merritt estimated Central Legal Services spent five times as much to close a case in 1999 than his office.

His office also had one-third the budget but still managed to close 90 percent more cases last year, Merritt said. Figures were not available on Central Legal Services Monday.

&uot;In my opinion it will not be as efficiently operated if it were not operated with our local board of attorneys,&uot; Merritt said.

Robinson said &uot;the merger only works, of course, if it best serves the clients.&uot;

Officials do not know when they will make a decision, she added.

The organizations provide their clients with experienced counsel for civil cases, such as divorces, adoptions, bankruptcies, child support cases, custody battles and evictions.

Merritt said his office found out about a possible merger last year. He heard it would take place Jan. 1.

&uot;They basically told us you’re going to do it or you’re not going to get funding,&uot; said Merritt, who urges concerned people to contact their congressmen.

&uot;We’re just here to help people who need help, Merritt said.&uot;