Supreme Court's Justice for All Task Force holds listening session in Grand Rapids

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PHOTOS COURTESY OF  MICHIGAN SUPREME COURT

by Cynthia Price
Legal News

Two members of the Michigan Supreme Court, Justice Brian Zahra and Chief Justice Bridget McCormack, recently came to Grand Rapids to host a  town hall on the Justice for All effort that has a goal of “achieving 100% access to Michigan’s civil justice system,” according to both justices.

The Feb. 14 session was held at the Center for Community Transition on Madison, a fairly new project of the NAACP GR, Grand Rapids Nehemiah Project, Building Bridges Professional Services, Rising Grinds Cafe, Bethany Christian Service’s Youth Services Department and others to address the disparity in certain measures of success affecting non-white populations in Grand Rapids.

The Justice for All Task Force, which hosted the event, was launched last year to address the “civil justice gap.” Many people outside the legal system think that there is a right to a lawyer in all cases, but since that is true only in criminal cases, many face civil legal problems without any kind of representation or advice. Legal aid agencies like Legal Aid of Western Michigan are underfunded, so they have to turn away approximately half of the people who ask for their assistance; moreover, as was pointed out at the town hall, some people are not even aware that assistance exists.

And, as the Justice for All page of the Michigan Supreme Court website (www.courts.mi.gov/jfa) says, “Only 10% of people with civil legal problems recognize their issue has a legal  component that may be solved by the civil justice system. ?People who have done nothing wrong often lose their cases in court because they don’t have the legal information or help they need.”?

Following on the heels of an American Bar Association resolution  that  “encourages  U.S.  jurisdictions  to  consider innovative approaches to the access to justice crisis in order to help the more than  80%  of  people  below  the  poverty  line  and  the  many  middle-income Americans  who  lack  meaningful  access  to effective civil legal services,” Chief Justice McCormack said, the national Council of Chief Justices adopted their own.

She told the approximately 90 people who came for the town hall that the resolution reads, “Access to affordable legal services is critical in a society that has the rule of law as a foundational principle. Legal services are growing more expensive, time-consuming, and complex which makes it difficult for many people to obtain the necessary legal advice and assistance in adversarial proceedings involving basic human needs such as shelter, sustenance, health, and child custody.”

Following Chief Justice McCormack’s introduction, and brief remarks by State Rep. Tommy Brann, the participants heard from Justice Zahra, who is the official Supreme Court liaison to the task force.

He said that when he was a new judge, he naively thought that unrepresented people with significant legal cases could find someone to do it pro bono, but soon found out, as he tried to help them do so, that the legal aid agencies were overwhelmed.

He talked a little bit about the formation of the task force, which set as its first objectives to find out who needed help and how they were receiving that help; who was falling through the cracks; and who was not even on the radar screen because they were not entering the court system due to  lack of legal knowledge. He said they are still in information-gathering mode, but that by September of this year, he expects the task force to have developed a detailed plan.

 “Our goal is to be creative in opening doors to the civil justice system. Often we’re going to be providing assistance in a manner where we don’t use lawyers, that is, through the court’s legal staff, kiosks in the lobby of the courthouse, or perhaps on your cell phone which, thanks to your Michigan Supreme Court, people can now bring in,” Justice Zahra said. The final statement was met with whoops and applause.

It is not as if Michigan has no innovative solutions available currently. Presenters and those giving testimony mentioned the Legal Assistance Center, specific to Kent County, and the state has recently enabled Limited Scope Representation (LSR), which helps make legal services affordable.

And there is also the Michigan Legal Help online service. The session’s next speaker, Angela Tripp, is the director of MI Legal Help. About her, Justice Zahra said, “Frankly Angela, along with Jennifer Bentley from the Michigan State Bar Foundation are the heart and soul of our task force.” After talking about the website (https://michiganlegalhelp.org/), Tripp moderated the town hall.
Many of those who spoke were attorneys who had suggestions for potential innovative solutions, including reiterating the need to strengthen LSR. Attorneys who came into contact with the public on civil cases emphasized that there needs to be more education about available options, and offered some ideas about how to do this. People also spoke about their specific problems with the court, which the justices seemed to regard with high interest, though there were some complaining about the probate courts whose concerns were not completely clear.

An additional theme arose out of the discussion. The testimony of Carol Rienstra of the Restorative Justice Coalition of West Michigan; Executive Director Christine Gilman of the Dispute Resolution Center of West Michigan; and attorney Ron Foster (a solo attorney who works with Mel Trotter’s legal clinic) suggested that mediation, particularly combined with LSR, might be a good solution. “It enables people to have a voice. If we can educate people to use these alternatives, it would help,” said Gilman.

Others suggested more consistency across the state in attorney-fee reimbursement, greater use of law student clinics, and changing the rules to allow attorneys to barter in economically-challenged areas. Elvira Hernandez of the ACLU said that for the immigrant community, fear of ICE in the courtroom means they are reluctant to address legal issues.

Another opportunity to give testimony takes place in Detroit Feb. 28 (6:00 p.m.) at the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. People may also tell their stories, give suggestions, or make comments by emailing JFATaskForce@ourts.mi.gov.



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