Three-step: Fund-raiser to help provide 'Access to Bankruptcy Court'

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By Paul Janczewski

Legal News

Really, it's as simple as A, B, C.

Attend the initial fund-raiser on Thursday, Sept. 15, to benefit Access to Bankruptcy Court (ABC), a recently formed nonprofit corporation aimed at helping potential pro se debtors wind their way through Chapter 7 proceedings by providing them free legal counsel.

Buy one, or more, of the donated items available through a silent auction that evening. Tickets to a Detroit Lions game, 48 bottles of wine, tickets to a University of Michigan football game, golf and a Boyne Mountain ski trip are among the items up for auction.

Celebrate a worthwhile cause that reiterates how rewarding and important pro bono work is to the legal profession and to those clients who cannot otherwise afford, but desperately need, legal assistance. And enjoy some wine and edibles while you're there.

The event will be held from 6- 9 p.m. on Thursday at the offices of Stevenson & Bullock PLC, Suite 500, 26100 American Drive in Southfield. Tickets are $30 in advance and $40 at the door.

The idea for ABC has been tossed around for the past year in legal bankruptcy circles.

According to Alesia Dobbins, the pro se law clerk at the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Eastern District of Michigan, and Judge Marci B. McIvor, a bankruptcy judge there, the court has witnessed a significant increase in pro se filings in recent years.

McIvor and Dobbins said 390 pro se filings--those done by individuals without the benefit of an attorney--occurred in 2000. By 2009, it had jumped to nearly 3,500. That number fell slightly last year to more than 2,100 filings, and this year stood at almost 1,550 through August.

"The numbers are still vastly higher than the court has historically seen," Dobbins said in an e-mail. She added that those numbers show that there is an "incredible need for bankruptcy relief among a large population of people who simply cannot afford attorneys."

And when people try to take on legal matters without attorneys, the outcomes are almost inevitable. In many cases, the action may be dismissed and their bankruptcy denied. Dobbins job is to help people filing pro se get through the procedural requirements of the process.

Leslie Berg, a trial attorney in the U.S. Trustee's Office, a division of the Justice Department responsible for oversight of the bankruptcy system, said she's been involved with bankruptcy matters for 31 years, the last 21 in Michigan.

"A lot of people need the relief that bankruptcy offers," she said.

But she and others involved in some way with the process see the problems most pro se cases create. And while bankruptcy judges, trustees and others try to help pro se filers, they can only do so much while remaining true to their primary roles within the system.

"It creates a lot of tangles and snarls in the system that shouldn't be there, and are not there when people are represented by counsel," Berg said.

The ABC website said Detroit-area bankruptcy judges have the heaviest caseloads in the nation, mainly because of the downturn in the economy, which has hit Michigan harder than nearly all the other states. So the busiest court has the most per se filings, and that all spells a massive slowdown in the system. Think I-75 during construction season and the road ahead is littered with accidents and stalled vehicles.

Dobbins said that has created problems for judges, chambers' staff and other attorneys--a wholesale bottleneck interspersed with speed bumps. McIvor, Dobbins, Berg and others said in many cases, the pro se debtor who had a case dismissed or bankruptcy denied often faced a minor glitch that an attorney could have successfully handled.

Several years ago, McIvor jumped into the problem and got together with attorneys, law schools and other legal aid providers to brainstorm ideas to combat that problem while also providing pro se debtors a way to have equal access to the law in bankruptcy court.

The group, which included bankruptcy attorneys from some of the Detroit-area's leading firms, decided to create a non-profit organization that could use tax-deductible donations to pay a select group of attorneys a fee of $800 to handle Chapter 7 bankruptcies at no cost to the debtor.

ABC was born.

"Access to Bankruptcy Court was founded to address the problem of access to the justice system for debtors who do not have sufficient means to afford an attorney," McIvor said. "As a general rule, debtors who are represented by counsel have more successful outcomes in bankruptcy than debtors who attempt to navigate the bankruptcy process by themselves. ABC hopes to address this problem by using donated funds to pay qualified bankruptcy attorneys to represent needy debtors."

Also, Lauren Rousseau, a law professor at Cooley Law School in Auburn Hills, said her institution developed a bankruptcy education program and was doing free seminars after seeing the problem pro se bankruptcy filings were causing. For example, Rousseau said many debtors were failing to list all of their properties when doing it pro se because they feared losing their properties, or did not understand they had to list all of their properties.

Those oversights can be viewed as fraudulent or disingenuous to bankruptcy trustees and ruin the entire case, Rousseau said.

"But what these debtors don't realize is there are exceptions, and they can keep certain things, but they have to reveal it," she said. "The result is there are people who deserve and need these bankruptcy discharges but because of technicalities don't get them."

With Cooley's bankruptcy education program, law school students held seminars, power-point demonstrations, and gave potential debtors the documents they would need. Berg, Dobbins and McIvor were also often on hand to answer questions.

Rousseau learned of ABC through that, and wanted to get involved, and is now an ex officio board member. McIvor is also an ex-officio director of ABC, and Dobbins and Berg are also board members.

Rousseau hopes to involve Cooley students in ABC, "but it's too early in the process to see what form that might take," she said. "I hope to involve students both to increase the ability of attorneys, which would increase the amount of work that can be done to serve those clients, and also give our students an educational experience," she said.

Now back to the wine and other goodies available at the silent auction. Among the items to be auctioned are:

* Judy B. Calton, a partner at Honigman, Mille,r Schwartz, and Cohn, and President and Director of ABC, along with David Calton, 48 bottles of wine.

* Board member Seymour L. Adler, owner of a financial advisory firm, and Trish Adler, four tickets to the Lions October 16 game against the San Francisco 49ers.

* ABC's first vice president and director David W. Allard, a shareholder with Allard & Fish, and Jan, an afternoon on a Formula 40 PC, followed by dinner for two at the Grosse Point Yacht Club.

* Barry Lefkowitz, ABC's treasurer and director, and managing director of BBK Ltd. financial advisory firm, golf for three and lunch at Franklin Hills.

* Dobbins has donated two nights at a ski condo at Boyne Mountain.

* Berg and Bob Berg, dinner, drinks and dessert for two at Brady's Tavern in Southfield.

* And Daniel Linna is offering two tickets to U-M's football game against San Diego State on September 24.

Because of her position, McIvor cannot encourage people to attend the fund-raiser. And Berg's involvement is of her own doing. ABC is not sponsored, recommended or in any way connected to the U.S. Trustee's Office. But she is co-chair of the Bankruptcy Section of the Federal Bar Association for the Eastern District of Michigan, and an adjunct professor at Cooley, teaching,--what else!--bankruptcy.

"Personally, and professionally, I'm very excited about (ABC)," Berg said. "You can't be part of this system and not have some compassion for people who have fallen on really hard times, who are honest but really unfortunate and need the help," she said. "This is a tremendous program not just for the people, but a way for lawyers to give back. Pro bono work is something that every lawyer should do and it's an important part of being an attorney, so I think it serves both of those goals."

ABC is funded through donations, and recently received grants from the American College of Bankruptcy and its foundation. Proceeds of the fundraiser will let ABC's officers begin to refer eligible debtors to attorneys who have agreed to take on cases. So far, nearly 50 lawyers have hooked up with the program, but others are welcome to offer their services, either with the stipend, or pro bono.

Rousseau said a number of attorneys perform pro bono work, but "the problem is there are so many more debtors with a need than are pro bono attorneys to fill it."

"This is a fantastic idea, and a very exciting, worthwhile program," Rousseau said. "We hope it helps debtors who otherwise would be unable to obtain discharges, even though they deserve them, to get discharges so they can restart their lives, especially in this period of economic distress. People need this."

ABC is identified as an Access to Justice Fund with the State Bar of Michigan Foundation, which means donations can satisfy the State Bar's pro bono standards of cash contributions in lieu of service hours.

Any attorneys who want to contribute either time, money, or both can get additional information from ABC's website at:http://www.accesstobankruptcycourt.com. And potential debtors can visit the site to learn of ABC's services and how to apply for a free attorney to help them through the process.

Published: Tue, Sep 13, 2011

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