SBM program will help domestic violence victims

By Tom Gantert

Legal News

Jackson Attorney Jennifer Lamp says she has noticed that more and more people cannot afford a divorce.

It's not just the attorney expenses. It's also the costs involved with running two households. And the problem is compounded when domestic violence is involved.

"This is a particularly bad situation when you have domestic violence present--or when domestic violence begins with the onset of a separation," Lamp said. "It is a very troubling situation for a person to be trapped in a marriage when violence is present--not only for the victim but also the children."

Lamp, a committee member on the State Bar Committee on Domestic Violence, is participating for the first time as a trainer in a program the State Bar of Michigan is holding to help get low-income people with domestic violence issues some legal aid.

The State Bar of Michigan Domestic Violence Committee is putting on a training sessions for how to handle pro bono domestic violence family law cases. It will be held from 1-5 p.m. Oct. 26 at Thomas M. Cooley Law School's Auburn Hills Campus, Room 100, 2630 Featherstone Road. There will also be a simultaneous broadcast to Cooley's three other campuses in Ann Arbor, Grand Rapids and Lansing.

The training will cover initial client interviews, pleadings and pretrial and trial practices as they relate to family law cases that involve domestic violence. The training will offer a comprehensive introduction to family and domestic violence law for attorneys new to this area of practice and will also serve as a great refresher for more experienced attorneys. There is no charge for attorneys who commit to take on a pro bono family law case within six months.

Attorneys can register online at

Lamp said sometimes to save costs, a couple may only get one attorney to handle the divorce.

"There are often real problems and disadvantages to the unrepresented party in this type of case. An attorney can only represent one party's interests in a divorce, not both parties," she said. "So the unrepresented party may end up with a divorce judgment that does not preserve their right to child custody and/or parenting time, spousal support, division of retirement accounts and other very important rights"

She said an unrepresented person may consent to the entry of a judgment without having an appreciation for the long-term legal consequences of their actions.

"At a minimum, people ought to at least hire an attorney to review their judgment and/or divorce settlement prior to signing it," she said.

The workshop comes at a time when lawyers across the country are saying there is an increased need for pro bono services.

John Levi, board chairman of Legal Services Corp., which is a funder of civil legal aid for the poor and gets federal funding, was quoted in Huffington Post as saying it has reached "crisis" level in the U.S.

''Courthouses are being filled with people just showing up, trying to figure out what their rights are. If you're a low-income person and you have a legal need, it is not easy to get it addressed," Levi was quoted in Huffington Post as saying.

Joanne Laux, a staff attorney for Legal Services of South Central Michigan, said they have to turn away a lot of people.

"The poor economy over the last several years has caused us to see an increased need for services," she said. "There is always a huge need for pro bono attorneys and not just in the area of divorce. Legal aid has very limited resources and we can't possibly handle all of the cases that come through the door."

In Washtenaw County, victims of domestic violence who can't afford to pay for a divorce have to be turned away by the Michigan Poverty Law Program, according to its managing attorney Rebecca Shiemke.

Shiemke said her organization, which provides legal services to low-income people, has two staff attorneys to cover all of Washtenaw County.

One of those staff attorneys is Rebecca Ellis, who said there was a "huge need" for lawyers to offer pro bono services.

"Even if we had 10 attorneys, that wouldn't be enough for Washtenaw County," Ellis said.

Published: Mon, Sep 3, 2012

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