Kentwood court partners with Legal Assistance Center for self-directed help

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PHOTOS COURTESY OF 62-B DISTRICT COURT

by Cynthia Price
Legal News

Last Friday, the 62-B District Court in Kentwood launched a new legal self-help center.

In partnership with the Legal Assistance Center (LAC), the court will now offer a place for self-directed assistance by those who do not have or are not able to afford an attorney to navigate the court system.

Of course, one aspect of such assistance may be to help people find a lawyer when they need one. But in some simple cases, such as eviction notices, uncontested divorce, or straightforward probate, it is a matter of filling out forms and knowing what to do next.

“Whether you are seeking information on how to solve family, housing or money issues, or need help preparing for a court hearing, the 62-B District Court Legal Assistance Center has a plethora of self-help resources you can utilize,” said Judge William G. Kelly of the 62-B District Court.

Judge Kelly, who recently won one of the prestigious Donald G. Worsfold Awards from the Grand Rapids Bar Association,  has long been a champion for those who face challenges in interacting with the court system. The 62-B District Court runs a regional sobriety court and has an eviction diversion program.

The new center will give users the ability to find information online or in written brochures. There will also be a variety of court forms available. Upon entering, the users will find a computer and, most important, a users’ guide which offers information on how to get started: differences between circuit and district court cases, the types of assistance available, and how to get in touch with organizations such as Legal Aid of Western Michigan and the Grand Rapids Bar Lawyer Referal and Information Service. In addition, there is a phone so users may contact the staff and trained volunteers at the LAC located in the 61st District Court downtown.

The LAC was the brainstorm of a number of attorneys in Kent County, led by Miller Johnson’s Jon Muth. To quote a Grand Rapids Legal News story at the time of Muth’s being named the statewide Lawyer of the Year (2011), “Approaching 50 years old, he bicycled almost 3000 miles across the United States in 23 days to kick-start fund-raising for the Center.”

Since that time, the LAC has grown to serve, consistently, over 18,000 people per year. This amounts to about 90 people per day that the center is open, now Tuesday through Friday – though Hughes and the LAC board would like to find funding to have it open five days a week.

“There is a growing gap between those who can afford paid legal representation and the very few who can get free legal representation. This is the Justice Gap... people caught in the middle with little choice but to solve legal problems and use the courts on their own,” says the LAC?website.  “These people are our family, our friends, our neighbors and our co-workers. They are low income and of modest means; most are employed.”

Stated Hughes, herself a lawyer who has been with the organization since 2012, “Many of us will interact with the legal system at some point in our lives, and it can be difficult to untangle complex legal processes alone, so we are here to help. Patrons can come to the walk-in center downtown, call or visit our website for help understanding what options are available in... areas like family law, rental disputes, probate and small claims.”

Hughes says, “We’re going to assess how the Kentwood court’s center is used, how many people it draws, since we’re really trying to expand the numbers of people we can serve.”

The LAC?board, which recently unveiled a 2018-2020 plan calling for such expansion, is headed up by Thomas Sinas of Sinas Dramis Law Firm. Miller Johnson attorney Richard Hillary II is the president-elect, and members include judges, lawyers, financial experts and court personnel.

“Judge Kelly is so innovative, always ahead of the curve in making his court very user-friendly,”  says Hughes. “This is a piece of that.”