Pro Bono Awards recognize efforts to improve access to justice

January 23, 2024

Four judges of the Hinds Chancery Court were recently honored by the Mississippi Volunteer Lawyers Project for their work assisting poor people to gain access to justice.

Judge Claiborne

Chancellors Dewayne Thomas, Crystal Wise Martin, Tiffany Grove and Tametrice Hodges were presented the Beacon of Justice Award. Chancery Court Administrators Tonya Anderson and D’Andrea LaShae Gilmore and the Hinds County Chancery Clerk staff also were recognized for their work making sure that all people have access to the courts.

Others who were honored for their legal assistance to the poor were attorney Harry M. Yoste Jr. of Gulfport, attorney Carolyn McAlister of Gulfport, attorney Malissa Wilson of Jackson, Yumekia Jones of Indianola and the Mississippi Bar Litigation Section. MVLP presented the awards at the annual Pro Bono Awards Reception in Jackson on Dec. 12.

The Beacon of Justice Award is presented to members of the judiciary who provide outstanding leadership in promoting and supporting equal access to justice. MVLP Board member Seth Shannon, who presented the award, said, “Access to justice is a fundamental right, and it is through the efforts of these judges that this right is made a reality for so many individuals.” He said, “Their tireless efforts have helped bridge the gap between the legal system and the residents, making the courts more approachable and understandable....By dedicating their time and expertise, these judges have empowered the residents of their county to assert their rights, seek redress, and find resolution to their legal disputes. Their passion, commitment, and tireless efforts have made a significant impact on the lives of many. We owe them our deepest thanks for their invaluable contribution to our community.”

The Hinds County Chancery Court for many years scheduled a free guardianship clinic shortly before the start of the fall school term to help grandparents and other family members obtain guardianships so that they can enroll children in school. Over the past five years, the free clinics have been expanded in subject matter and frequency. Free legal clinics are scheduled at Hinds Chancery Court twice each year to address family law issues such as uncontested no-fault divorce, visitation, child custody, guardianships and name changes.

Judge Claiborne

Shannon said, “Court Administrators D’Andrea Gilmore and Tonya Anderson, and the Hinds County Chancery Clerk staff, have done a remarkable job with providing access to the Courts.”

The clinics are usually packed with people seeking assistance. Shannon said that during the past five years, about 400 Hinds County residents have gotten help at the clinics. More than 170 volunteer attorneys and 30 law student volunteers provided services. The efforts included partnerships with MVLP, the Capital Area Bar Association, Mission First Legal Aid, the Jackson Public School District and AARP.

Statewide, MVLP hosted 37 clinics, the most ever for MVLP in a year. The clinics provided limited representation to 419 people across the state. MVLP also helped 497 individuals gain access to the courts through full direct representation by volunteer lawyers, said attorney Alicia Hall, vice-chair of the MVLP Board of Directors.

Judge Thomas, who is senior chancellor of the Fifth Chancery Court of Hinds County, began his service on the Court in 2007. He previously served in the House of Representatives for nine years, representing House District 71, and he served as Assistant County Attorney in Hinds County for 11 years. He also was in private law practice. He earned a B.B.A. from the University of Mississippi and a juris doctor from Mississippi College School of Law.

Judge Wise Martin was elected to the Hinds County Chancery Court in November 2018 and took office in January 2019. She previously served as attorney for the Hinds County Board of Supervisors for about six years. She was special master in Hinds County Chancery Court, and was an assistant prosecuting attorney for Hinds County. She earned a Bachelor of Science Degree in Chemistry from Spelman College, a Bachelor of Chemical Engineering Degree from Georgia Tech and a law degree from the University of Mississippi School of Law. She is past president of the Magnolia Bar Association. She is a fellow of the Mississippi Bar Foundation.

Judge Grove was elected to the Hinds County Chancery Court in November 2018 and took office in January 2019. She was president of the Capital Area Bar Association. She serves on the Access to Justice Commission. She was chair of the Women in the Profession Committee of the Mississippi Bar for two years. The Mississippi Women Lawyers Association named her Outstanding Woman Lawyer of the Year in 2018. She is a graduate of the Honors College at the University of Southern Mississippi, and earned a law degree from Mississippi College School of Law.

Judge Hodges was elected to the Hinds Chancery Court in November 2022 and took office in January 2023. She previously served as an assistant district attorney for Hinds County. Her private law practice was in family law. She is a former member of the Mississippi Bar Child Welfare and Advocacy Committee and the Mississippi Bar Ethics Committee. She served as a volunteer at Mission First. She attended Piney Woods Country Life School. She is a graduate of Denison University in Granville, Ohio, and earned her juris doctor from Mississippi College School of Law.

The pro bono awards highlight “the exceptional individuals and teams who have gone above and beyond to make a difference in the lives of our clients and their communities. Their commitment to social justice and the pursuit of equitable access to legal representation is truly inspiring,” Hall said.

Yoste, who provides free legal services to victims of domestic violence at the Northcutt Legal Clinic in Gulfport, was honored with the Curtis E. Coker Access to Justice Award. Sam Buchanan, Director of the Mississippi Center for Legal Services and a member of the MVLP Board of Directors, said, “MVLP could not think of anyone more befitting to receive this award than Harry Yoste. Harry has devoted his life to serving his country, his family and his community.”

For the past 19 years, Yoste has served as legal clinic director of Northcutt Legal Clinic. He also served as a director of the Mississippi Center for Legal Services. Buchanan said, “Harry has been a committed volunteer with the Mississippi Volunteer Lawyers Project for many years. Most recently, MVLP began co-hosting custody clinics with the Eighth Chancery District, serving Hancock, Harrison and Stone counties. If there is a clinic, Harry is there to volunteer, and he is there until the last person leaves.”

Yoste’s career spans more than 50 years, 45 of that as an attorney. He has a distinguished military career. He is a decorated veteran of the U.S. Army, having completed two overseas tours of duty in Vietnam and South Korea. He retired at the rank of Lieutenant Colonel after 28 years of service, Buchanan said.

The Curtis E. Coker Access to Justice Award fosters awareness of the need for involvement of the private bar in delivering legal services to the poor. The award is named in honor of the late Mississippi Bar President Curtis E. Coker, a leading advocate for making legal services available to all. The Mississippi Pro Bono Project, the forerunner of MVLP, was founded in 1982 during Coker’s presidency.

Recipients of the 2023 MVLP Pro Bono Award were attorney Carolyn McAlister of Gulfport, attorney Malissa Wilson of Jackson and Yumekia Jones of Indianola.

McAlister served as regional managing attorney for Mississippi Center for Legal Services before she opened her private law office. Her private practice includes family law, appellate practice, criminal defense, estate planning, youth court and immigration law. She continues to donate her time to pro bono representation through MVLP.

Wilson has been a volunteer for MVLP for more than a decade, donating her time for legal representation of the poor. She is a partner at Forman Watkins & Krutz LLP in Jackson. She previously served as a Special Assistant Attorney General and as a senior assistant city attorney for the city of Houston, Texas. She also served as in-house counsel for the University of Mississippi Medical Center and for a national insurance company.

Jones serves as office manager for Mississippi Center for Justice’s Indianola office and Program Manager for Special Projects in the Center’s Economic Justice Campaign. Jones manages the New Roots Credit Partnership (NRCP), an alternative to predatory lending practices that brings employers, community members and financial institutions together to engage Mississippians excluded from the economic mainstream for generations, said MVLP Board member Josie Mayfield Hudson.

Historically, MVLP’s Pro Bono Awards recognize attorneys. Jones, who is not an attorney, was honored because “she embodies the true spirit of service and ensuring vulnerable individuals have a voice in the legal system,” said Hudson, who presented the award.

Jones has volunteered at MVLP’s legal clinics in Greenville for many years. In 2018, when MVLP expanded legal clinics in the Mississippi Delta to include Sunflower and Humphreys counties, Jones helped make those clinics run smoothly. Hudson said, “MVLP hosts a total of eight family law clinics per year in the Mississippi Delta, and Yumekia is always there to give of herself to ensure underserved Mississippians in her community have access to the courts.”

MVLP presented the 2023 Chairman of the Board’s Torchbearer Award to the Mississippi Bar Litigation Section. The Torchbearer Award honors firms, organizations and individuals who have contributed financial resources to MVLP to accomplish MVLP's mission of providing quality legal services to underserved Mississippians. “The Litigation Section has been generous to MVLP throughout the years, having contributed nearly $30,000 to MVLP to carry out its legal clinics across the state of Mississippi as well as providing direct representation to MVLP clients,” said Ratoya Gilmer McGee, immediate past chair of the MVLP Board of Directors.

MVLP’s Board of Directors presented a plaque to McGee in appreciation of her year of service as Chairman of the Board.