Grand Opening for Allegan County Legal Assistance Center: a Michigan Legal Help Program

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Residents of Allegan County who are unable to afford an attorney now have a new place to go for assistance – the Michigan Legal Help Self-Help Center of Allegan County.  Located on the ground level of the Allegan County Circuit Courthouse (113 Chestnut Street), the Self-Help Center is staffed by navigators who can help visitors use the Michigan Legal Help website at www.MichiganLegalHelp.org to gain information about how to represent themselves in simple civil legal matters.  The Self-Help Center is open on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays from 8:30am until 5:00pm.

The Michigan Legal Help Self-Help Center of Allegan County is part of a pilot project overseen by the Solutions on Self-Help Task Force.  The Task Force was established in 2010 by (then) Michigan Supreme Court Chief Justice Marilyn Kelly to improve and coordinate resources for self-represented persons.    

“We are very pleased to have a staffed self-help center in our courthouse,” said Hon. Margaret Zuzich Bakker, Judge for the 48th Circuit Court.  “In recent years, the Allegan County Courts have seen a flood of self-represented litigants in a variety of matters.  For example, we estimate that 60% of domestic relations cases are those where people are representing themselves. By getting legal information and assistance from the Self-Help Center, these individuals will be better equipped to bring their cases before the court, which will improve their experiences as well as make court operations smoother.”

The Michigan Legal Help Self-Help Center of Allegan County is an internet-based self-help center that makes use of the free legal information website www.MichiganLegalHelp.org.  In addition to the website, self-help center staff (called ‘navigators’) will be available to help visitors find what they need on the website, answer questions about court practices and processes, and answer simple questions about forms that are available on the website.  Navigators cannot give legal advice.

The Michigan Legal Help website was created to make legal information easier to understand and to show people how to navigate the court system properly and efficiently. The website can also help users look for a lawyer in their area if they need more assistance.  The website contains articles explaining specific areas of law, toolkits, forms and instructional checklists to help prepare people who represent themselves in court.  Many court forms can be filled out online using a simple question and answer interview format.  The website also includes information about local community services and details about the court(s) where a website visitor’s legal issue may be handled. Although it does not cover all areas of law, new content will be added frequently.

There are specific sections regarding family law matters, protection from abuse, housing issues, consumer law problems, and expungement. Family law matters include divorce, custody, and child support.  Consumer legal issues covered are suits regarding debts, small claims, installment payment plans and garnishment.  The housing section deals with leases, security deposits, landlord/tenant issues, mobile homes, eviction and subsidized housing.  Expungement provides information about setting aside an adult criminal conviction or a juvenile adjudication. 

 “We are excited to be working with so many community partners in Allegan County,” said Project Director Angela Tripp. Tripp is the project director for the Michigan Poverty Law Program, which was selected by the Task Force to create and manage the pilot website and self-help center project.  Tripp said, “The partners for this self-help center include judges and staff from the Allegan County District, Circuit, and Probate Courts, and representatives from the Sheriff’s Department, Sylvia’s Place, United Way, Safe Harbor children’s Advocacy Center, Legal Aid of Western Michigan, the Allegan County Family Court, Allegan General Hospital, and an individual from the community who will serve as a volunteer navigator. This community-based approach to operating a self-help center is based on the model which Illinois Legal Aid Online has used successfully for more than a decade.”

The Michigan Legal Help web site and affiliated local self-help centers are part of the overall work of the Solutions on Self-Help Task Force to promote coordinated and quality assistance for persons representing themselves in civil legal matters in Michigan. The Task Force is a statewide collaboration of judges, courts, lawyers, bar associations, nonprofit legal aid agencies, legal self-help centers, libraries and many others. For more information about the Solutions on Self Help Task Force and it other projects go to www.sostf.org.

Michigan Legal Help is funded by the Michigan State Bar Foundation and The Legal Services Corporation.