Michigan Legal Help, Angela Tripp given Access to Justice award

by Cynthia Price
Legal News

Though the agency that oversees it may be somewhat unfamiliar to many attorneys, most will have heard of Michigan Legal Help.

Angela Tripp is the woman behind the online website which aims to make negotiating the legal system easier in certain types of cases for those who cannot afford a lawyer.

Tripp and the program have  won one of the 2017 Access to Justice Awards from the Michigan State Bar Foundation, but there is more to the story.

Linda Rexer, who retired in January as the director of the Foundation after nearly 30 years (since its inception), provided leadership in creation of Michigan Legal Help, among a great number of accomplishments. She is the recipient of the Foundation’s Founders  Award this year, which last year went to West Michigan attorney Jon Muth as one of two awardees.

According to the Foundation, Rexer, also a founding member of the Access to Justice  Task Force in 1997, counts Michigan Legal Help as one of her proudest accomplishments.

“Linda Rexer played a huge role in Michigan Legal Help,” says Tripp. “So I think they gave her the Founders Award and we got this Access to Justice award as kind of a package deal.”

Tripp herself has spent her entire legal career serving the concept that all people should be able to have their day in court.

After graduating from the University of Cincinnati with a BA and receiving her JD from Northeastern University School of Law in Boston in 2003, she went directly to a position at Prison Legal Services of Michigan.

“I always knew that I wanted to do legal services. That was the reason I went to law school,” Tripp says. “At the time I was interested in assisting in the area of domestic violence, so the specific audience changed, but my desire to provide legal services has always been a driving force.”

From Prison Legal Services, Tripp became a staff attorney at Legal Services of South Central Michigan, the legal aid organization covering Barry, Branch, Calhoun, Clinton, Eaton, Hillsdale, Ingham, Jackson, Lenawee, Livingston, Monroe, Shiawassee, and Washtenaw Counties. Based in Lansing, she also served as managing attorney for a couple of years before starting at the Michigan Poverty Law Program.

Michigan PLP offers support services to any legal aid attorney in the state, as well as to the various legal aid organizations themselves, while at the same time finding funding from sources other than the national Legal Services Corporation on which many legal aid services rely at least in part.

In 2012, Tripp became the co-director, serving alongside Lorray Brown.

But it was before then, in 2011, that the Michigan Solutions on Self-Help Task Force (which Rexer co-chaired) issued a Request for Proposals to run what eventually was called Michigan Legal Help. Michigan PLP submitted a proposal and was chosen; Angela Tripp has been the director ever since.

In 2016, over 770,000 people visited MichiganLegalHelp.org, and over 86,000 filled out legal forms using its links. In June, 2017, visits to the website averaged 28,000 a week.  In addition, there are ten in-person help centers across the state, from Oscoda to Allegan to Muskegon.

The Legal Assistance Center of Kent County, as well as the Ottawa County Legal Self-Help Center, predated the Michigan Legal Help project, but are partnering organizations and are included on the website’s reference page.

“Michigan Legal Help is primarily funded by the Michigan Supreme Court. We have a diversity of funding, including from the State Bar Foundation and some from the State Bar of Michigan itself,” Tripp says.

She notes that the centers differ because it is up to each county to make decisions about who will staff them and how they will be set up. Michigan Legal Help provides training for the “navigators” staff, and a key part of that training is in distinguishing what crosses over the line into giving legal advice.

“The way that we train our navigator staff is, it’s legal advice when it takes a person’s specific fact pattern and applies those facts to the law and gives an answer.” Tripp says. “We train them carefully to know the difference, and let them know how such questions can be answered in a way that gives legal information and tells them what their choices are for proceeding.”

She is very excited about a program Michigan Legal Help will launch before the end of the year.

“We’re adding a really big new feature called Legal Help Finder. It will very specifically help people find the content they need on the website and offer more relevant referrals for attorneys,” Tripp says.

“Right now, there’s frustration because everyone who’s below 200 percent of the poverty line seems to be referred to the legal services groups like Legal Aid of Western Michigan. They’re overwhelmed. There’s a statistic I quote in my presentations that there is about one attorney for every 300 people in Michigan, but legal aid attorneys, it’s one for every 22,000.

“The point of the Legal Help Finder is to better tailor those referrals. If it’s not a case type that legal services handles, they’re going to get referred to somewhere else. It gives the user a much better-tailored list of referrals, and it will integrate with the State Bar referral system. So if a person is looking at family law in Ottawa County, the referral system will already know that.”

Legal Help Finder will also allow for intake forms to draw information that has already been entered, which of course poses security problems. Tripp says that they are taking their time on the launch to make sure all such challenges are fully addressed.

Tripp oversees many other Michigan PLP?offerings. Part of the Michigan Advocacy Program, which also is responsible for Legal Services of South Central Michigan field programs and Farmworker Legal Services, Michigan PLP in turn hosts the Crime Victim Legal Assistance Program, the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center, the Michigan Poverty Law Program in conjunction with University of Michigan (with Tripp and Lorray Brown the managing attorneys), and the Michigan Elder Justice Initiative. The Michigan Poverty Law Program itself hosts the Michigan Foreclosure Prevention Program.

Tripp explains that one of Michigan PLP’s most valuable programs is to offer consultations with substantive law experts in the areas of family, housing, consumer, public benefits and elder law to any legal aid attorney in the state.

“The substantive law attorneys do a lot of impact work that’s not litigation. They lobby for change, and they’re on lots of statewide committees and task forces. These attorneys are really specialists in their fields,” Tripp explains.

She too serves on many State Bar advisory and policy groups, in addition to speaking nationally about Michigan Legal Help, including at the Fourth Annual White House Summit on Increasing Access to Justice in 2015.

The well-deserving Tripp along with the other Access to Justice winner, Ari Scharg and Edelson PC, will receive their awards at the Sept. 27 State Bar Foundation’s Fellows Reception, during the State Bar of Michigan’s NEXT Conference/annual meeting at Cobo Center in Detroit. Linda Rexer will receive her award at the State Bar Awards Dinner that same evening.

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