Hon. Michelle M. Rick announces new program at the Clinton/Gratiot County family courts

By Roberta M. Gubbins

Legal News

Clinton/Gratiot County family court will soon have an Informal docket for low conflict domestic relation cases. A new concept in the Michigan Judicial system, the program came to be thanks to the efforts of Hon Michelle M. Rick, Judge 29th Circuit Court and her staff.

When the State Court Administrative Office had put out a request for proposal for pilot projects, Judge Rick saw an opportunity to assist the pro se divorce litigants that regularly appeared before the judges of the Clinton/Gratiot family courts. "We were seeing that the court was not well equipped to meet the needs that they expected would be met by the Judge, the Friend of the Court (FOC) or the clerk's office. We devised a program that we pitched (to SCAO) a year and a half ago. The things I am about to tell you are still pending. We believe we will be up and running in July."

"Now, I want to let you know the court has no desire to take any business from anyone sitting around this table," said Judge Rick, looking at the members of the Ingham County Bar Association Family Law Section meeting at the State Bar of Michigan on May 13th.

"The program that we have constructed," she continued, "will serve people who will never come in contact with anyone in this room. These are litigants who have debt, have children, no real property, pensions, annuities, or anything that would be covered by QDROs (Qualified Domestice Relations Orders). They have no cases pending involving domestic violence or abuse and neglect. They just have their personal affects, children, and a desire to no longer be married."

"They will be presented to our Friend of the Court through the normal conciliation process. Once they file a divorce action, they are referred to FOC and they meet with our caseworkers for a conciliation hearing. If the FOC caseworker determines that they meet all the criteria, they will be given an opportunity to opt into the pilot project."

"The benefits of opting in to the pilot project for them are many. First, they will have immediate access to the court. The judges have committed that they will schedule three conferences over the six-month statutory period, the first scheduled a month from conciliation. Typically, with most litigants, the first hearing after conciliation is about five months later for the final hearing conference."

"The pro se litigants flounder in that five-month period and don't know what they are supposed to do. So they will see us three times in that six-month period," she said. " At the first conference, the court will describe the divorce process and provide them with forms including a divorce judgment, a uniform support order, and a motion form."

"We determine if they have a property settlement and, if so, can they bring that back with them at the next hearing. We are hopeful we can reduce their concerns, educate them so they know what the next step is every time they return to court, and in the long run, if they do have a positive experience, they may be less likely to engage in that post-judgment experience."

"We hope to be up and running in July," Judge Rick said. "They can opt-out if they chose. Opt-out is mandated if they hire counsel, if the court determines they are not right for the program, or have the resources to hire the attorney. That attorney can request that a new judge hear the matter--we will not take offense."

In answer to questions she said.

"This program is really more like a mediation process than a strict judicial proceeding."

"I did this because we have so many pro se filings. They would seek advice from the clerk's office, the FOC, and then the court." Discussing the program with other judges, Judge Rick learned "that the courts are quite desperate on what to do with this population."

"All the conferences will take place on the record and the litigants will be sworn in. We will explain to them the process we want to follow."

"The FOC, the clerk's and the courts are very committed to this program. It has taken a long time to develop the forms we will be using in this program. We have modified language to addressing what we see to be an increasing population."

When asked how active the court would be in a situation such as: "We have a 69 Chevy, which was my husbands before we were married, but I paid $500 for new brakes and I think that now that is part of the marital estate and I should get $250.00." Judge Rick answered, "my general approach is that if it is an easy fix, we will do it, or come back with witnesses or documents and we will resolve it at the next hearing."

How many would qualify? She estimated "About 200 between the two counties."

Judge Rick was appointed to the 29th Circuit Court Bench by Governor Granholm in 2007. Prior to her appointment, she served as deputy legal counsel to the office of the Governor as well as serving the Michigan Department of Attorney General for more than a decade. She has taught at Lansing Community College and Michigan State University in Legal Research and Writing. Her favorite way of getting back and forth to work is to ride her motorcycle.

Little known fact:

Judge Rick rides a motorcycle to work. "I don't have a Harley, I have a scooter on steroids--it's a 250--it gets me from Dewitt to either St. Johns or to Ithaca on nice days."

Published: Thu, Jun 3, 2010


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