SBM works on behalf of clients, attorneys, with disabilities Equal Access Initiative is one of Bar's four Justice Initiatives

By Cynthia Price

Legal News

The State Bar of Michigan takes on a broader role than that of a professional organization, exploring issues and policy with a view to improving the discipline it serves.

Nowhere is this more evident than in its Equal Access Initiative (EAI), driven by the attorneys of the Bar and cutting across equality issues. The EAI won a major award earlier this year as Michigan's Corp! Magazine named it a Diversity Champion.

The Disability Project is a stellar EAI effort, weaving together various threads of work on the courts' treatment of people with disabilities, attorneys as well as clients.

The complex history of the project goes back at least as far as reports generated in 1989 concerning the public perception about the justice system's fairness. Approximately one third of those surveyed felt that the legal system offered "unequal justice for all." Among other actions, the State Bar and the courts formed the Open Justice Commission to address the situation. Hon. Marilyn Kelly, now Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, and Hon. Harold Hood became co-chairs.

In 2001 the Open Justice Commission released "A Report on Access to the Legal System in Michigan for Persons with Disabilities."

The report is comprehensive and clear. The approach taken is primarily that of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requirements, working primarily to flesh out the meaning and scope of ADA "accommodations."

The chair of the Disabilities Committee at the time, Hon. Paul Teranes, states in the report, "The members of the Disabilities Committee believe that for too long people with disabilities have been the silent minority. They are often required to respond to stereotypical attitudes about their abilities and face physical barriers to prevent their full participation in the judicial process."

The Commission did literature and direct research to determine the status in three areas: law schools and how they accommodated students; how courts dealt with attorneys with disabilities (with approximately 65 responding to a survey distributed); and how courts worked on behalf of clients with disabilities.

The results were not disheartening. Literature search showed that Michigan was doing a better job than many states, and most people contacted whether at the schools or the courts had familiarity with the ADA. The most challenging area, and an emerging issue across the U.S., is that of clients and students with cognitive and mental health disabilities.

The recommendations that came out of the report were very specific and feasible; for example, that a web-based tool kit be developed to help administrators follow best practices, or that the standing State Bar Committee on unauthorized practice of law include consideration of exceptions for advocates who work with people with disabilities.

The EAI, through its Disabilities Committee, is responsible for overseeing implementation of those recommendations.

According to Greg Conyers, the State Bar's Diversity Director since Oct. 1, the Open Justice Commission evolved into the EAI in the early part of this decade as the commission sunsetted. Conyers was formerly Director of Justice Initiatives, which had its own department but is now under the Executive Director. His current administrative assistant, Judy Hershkowitz, has been with the justice project since its inception.

The Disabilities Committee is part of the EAI, which is in turn one of four Justice Initiatives at the State Bar. The others, which often touch on disabilities issues as well, are the Pro Bono Initiative, the Justice Policy Initiative, and the new Criminal Issues Initiative, which covers collateral consequences and related matters.

Within that framework, the Disabilities Committee is a powerful and effective committee, as witness the fact that at least two other states have inquired about it, one of which is now using information from its newsletter in continuing legal education courses.

The Disabilities Newsletter is indeed a focal point for the project, with research on topics such as disabled veterans, family court issues with schools, deaf individuals (since the 2001 report often found that requests for sign language were denied), non-visible disabilities, and most recently guardianship issues. A 2009 subject addressed the 2001 report directly: "Conflicts Involving Counsel and Adult Clients with Cognitive Disabilities." Those interested may subscribe by going to www.michiganequaljustice.org, which is a valuable resource for other extensive information as well.

State Bar Director of External Development Candace Crowley brought the newsletter to fruition logistically, but says that the Disabilities Committee members had already done the hard work of conceiving it and shaping it Crowley is now continuing work on the Justice Initiatives after several years on other projects, and says she is very glad to be back.

Terri Stangl, who is co-chair of the State Bar's volunteer oversight group, the Committee on Justice Initiatives, states, "The Disabilities Project is a great example of how the Bar's Justice Initiatives, and indeed the Bar as a whole, are working in partnership with a growing number of organizations in Michigan that care about our justice system. Using knowledgeable volunteers and limited staff support, the project keeps disability advocates, the bench and bar informed about changes in the law, challenges faced by persons with disabilities, and current best practices for making justice accessible and meaningful for persons with disabilities."

Conyers, Crowley and Stangl cannot say enough about the contributions of dedicated and expert volunteers. Crowley says that some of them have been involved since the original Open Justice Commission, including Ann M. Cooper, currently Of Counsel to Drew, Cooper and Anding in Grand Rapids. "She's typical of the caliber of people working on this," says Crowley. "She's a great volunteer and a great lawyer."

The project could benefit from even more volunteer contributions as it moves into the next phase. Says Conyers, "We're currently on track to update the 2001 report and do another survey of the profession that will give us more information about it, to get a better picture of what the landscape looks like." The State Court Administrative Office will assist with focus groups around the state. "We anticipate we will be able to talk about what the courts have been able to accomplish over time in accommodating both people within the profession and clients who have disabilities," continues Conyers.

Requests for disability accommodations forms and information on Court of Appeals policy are also available at www.michiganequalaccess.org.

Published: Thu, Feb 25, 2010

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