Pro Se Legal Assistance Clinic to open Jan. 17 at U.S. District Court in Detroit

The United States District Court for Eastern Michigan and the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law have created a Pro Se Legal Assistance Clinic to provide legal advice to low-income citizens who seek to represent themselves in federal civil lawsuits. The program is aimed at helping those who have legitimate claims but who cannot afford to hire a lawyer.

The clinic will open Wednesday, Jan. 17, in Room 463 of the Theodore Levin U.S. Courthouse in downtown Detroit. A ceremony and open house will be held there on Jan. 16 from noon to 2 p.m.

“This is a historic moment for our court because this program will provide low-income citizens who can’t afford to hire a lawyer a more effective way to seek redress in civil lawsuits,” said Chief U.S. District Judge Denise Page Hood. “Pro se litigants often lack the legal training to effectively pursue legitimate claims.”

The one-year pilot program is being underwritten with $34,000 in grants or gifts to the University of Detroit Mercy from the Michigan State Bar Foundation, the Oakland County Bar Foundation, the Miller, Canfield, Paddock and Stone P.L.C. law firm and several individual donations from attorneys at Honigman, Miller, Schwartz and Cohn, L.L.P.  The Detroit chapter of the Federal Bar Association also received a $4,000 grant to support the clinic.

The law school is contributing an adjunct law professor – Plymouth attorney Kevin Carlson – to supervise eight law students who will help pro se clients. The U.S. District Court is furnishing office space and supplies for the program.

The clinic will operate Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from 1-5 p.m.

Law students will provide free, limited legal research and advice for pro se clients whose income does not exceed twice the federal poverty
threshold. Students will not represent the litigants in court and the program will not apply to prisoners who have filed pro se cases.

The program is designed to give students valuable legal experience; litigants will learn whether their claims have merit and how to pursue them in federal court.

“Our students will learn what it means to work in service to their neighbors as they experience firsthand the challenges and rewards of legal practice,” said Phyllis L. Crocker, dean of Detroit Mercy Law.

The project is the brainchild of U.S. District Judge Victoria Roberts who has advocated for improved access to the courts for low-income residents since serving as president of the State Bar of Michigan in 1996-97.

Roberts, a member of the law school’s advisory board, suggested at a board meeting in October 2016 that students be assigned to assist pro se litigants at federal court. Court employees are not permitted to provide legal advice.

Anne Yantus, director of the law school’s clinical program, proposed creating a clinic in which students could provide legal assistance to pro se litigants while acting under the direct supervision of a clinic attorney. The new Pro Se Legal Assistance Clinic will become one of 11 legal clinics the school operates. Every Detroit Mercy Law student is required to participate in a legal clinic before graduation.

“There is a need for this type of work, and a pro se clinic will bring value to litigants, the court and our students,” Yantus said.

Judge Hood, who also had been searching for ways to improve access to federal court for low-income residents since becoming chief judge in 2016, embraced the project.

In the months that followed, Roberts studied and visited a similar program in Brooklyn, N.Y., and wrote a proposal that Eastern District judges approved last June.

“The amount of money someone has should not dictate whether they have access to the court system,” Roberts said. “Providing legal services to the poor gives them a passport to the justice system. I feel very strongly that people often have legitimate claims, but don’t know a lawyer or have the money to access the system.”

During the 2016 fiscal year, 427 new federal civil cases – 10 percent of all new civil cases – were filed in the Eastern District of Michigan by non-prisoner pro se litigants. Most of those cases involved civil rights disputes, employment discrimination, Social Security appeals and contract issues.

The Clerk’s Office has distributed program fliers to 70 current pro se litigants. The federal court Clerk’s Office will refer new pro se litigants to the clinic. The litigants also may make an appointment by stopping by Room 463 of the courthouse, by calling 313-234-2690 or by sending an email to proseclinic@udmercy.edu.

Roberts expressed surprise at the low number of court-based legal programs for pro se litigants nationwide.

“After all of these years, our clinic will be only the tenth of its kind in the federal judiciary,” she said. “That means we are still in the vanguard.”
 

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