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Curators reject part-time attorney for MU students

Friday, June 5, 2009 | 1:47 p.m. CDT; updated 9:56 a.m. CDT, Saturday, June 6, 2009

KANSAS CITY — The UM System Board of Curators rejected a pilot program Friday that would have allowed a part-time attorney at MU to represent students in legal matters related to leasing or debt collection.

This kind of program is important to students, said Jo Hardesty, director and managing attorney for Legal Services for Students, a similar program at the University of Kansas.

Also Friday

The UM System Board of Curators approved:

  • The schematic design for the patient care tower at University Hospital.
  • $1 million for design renovations to Mark Twain Residence Hall at MU.

 



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Under the KU program, students can get legal representation in areas including landlord-tenant matters, consumer issues, tax assistance and traffic violations.

"The amount at dispute is not huge, which is why students lose out on getting legal assistance," Hardesty said. "It isn't financially feasible to fight it."

She said there are similar programs at universities in the Big 12 and throughout the country.

With Curator Judith Haggard absent, the vote was 4-4. MU can resubmit the proposal at any time.

Four years ago, students asked MU for a service that would allow an attorney to represent them, Cathy Scroggs, vice chancellor for student affairs, told board members at their morning meeting at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. Students worked with administrators to create a proposal and received feedback from Stephen Owens, general counsel for the UM System.

The main areas in which students feel underrepresented are those of landlord-tenant relations and consumer concerns, Scroggs said.

Student fees would pay for some of the litigation costs, and the student seeking representation would be required to pay for some of it, similar to a co-pay system, Scroggs said. That would be different than KU's program, to which each full-time student contributes $10 as part of student activity fees. The KU program has five attorneys.

“The students have some excess from fees, and so, in order to get this program started, we’ll hire someone half time, and they do have the funding for that for the (fiscal year 2010),” Scroggs said in her pitch to the board. “After that, I don’t believe in this climate we should be increasing those fees, and we will have to ask students to re-allocate. I think that’s a very good exercise for our students to have."

Currently, MU employs an attorney who educates students on legal issues but cannot litigate or represent them, Scroggs said.

Owens detailed the proposal for the board, saying, for example, that the attorney would be covered by professional liability insurance. He also said there would be restrictions on the types of lawsuits students could file. All litigation would have to occur in Boone County. Under this program, students could not sue other MU students, staff members or affiliates of the university.

Before the vote, UM System President Gary Forsee said he met with MU's student body president and vice president this spring and that though he was skeptical about the proposal at first, he recognized the student need.

“When you listen to the student perspective about what they’re up against and what they come equipped with against a landlord or a credit card company, it’s very compelling," Forsee said. "And so, to put in place a pilot that we manage and have fenced-in control, I think, is the right thing to do to recognize the students’ willingness to fund this. I was swayed by hearing the student voice.”

Curator Doug Russell, who voted against the proposal, said he can see the need for the program.

“If we were in different times, I would be inclined to consider it,” he said.

Others who voted against the proposal are Warren Erdman, Don Walsworth and David Wasinger.

Board Chairman Bo Fraser, as well as John Carnahan III, Don Downing and Cheryl Walker, voted for the proposal.

“Well, it looked like there’s a student need out there," Fraser said. "No one wants to overburden our legal staff. It was a pilot program for two years. I thought it was worth giving a try.”


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