More pro bono help needed for victims of domestic abuse

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By Tom Gantert

Legal News

In Washtenaw County, victims of domestic violence who can't afford to pay for a divorce have to be turned away by the Michigan Poverty Law Program, according to its managing attorney, Rebecca Shiemke.

Shiemke said her organization, which provides legal services to low-income people, has two staff attorneys to cover all of Washtenaw County.

One of those staff attorneys is Rebecca Ellis, who said there was a "huge need" for lawyers to offer pro bono services.

"Even if we had 10 attorneys, that wouldn't be enough for Washtenaw County," Ellis said.

John Levi, board chairman of Legal Services Corp., which is a funder of civil legal aid for the poor and gets federal funding, told the Huffington Post that the situation has reached "crisis" level in the U.S.

''Courthouses are being filled with people just showing up, trying to figure out what their rights are. If you're a low-income person and you have a legal need, it is not easy to get it addressed," Levi noted in the article.

That's true in Michigan.

The Legal Services of South Central Michigan serves 13 counties was unable to provide representation to about 60 percent of domestic violence clients who qualified for assistance, Shiemke said. There were 1,290 requests for assistance from domestic violence survivors and LSSCM was able to represent 524 of them.

In Washtenaw County, there were 385 requests for assistance from domestic violence survivors and the county was able to represent 156 clients. Shiemke said 95 percent of the Michigan Poverty Law Program's cases ended with positive outcomes.

Almost 70 percent of the Legal Aid-eligible clients in Michigan who asked for assistance involving a family law related issue did not receive the level of legal assistance needed to resolve their case because the legal services organizations did not have the necessary resources to do so, said Robert Mathis, pro bono service counsel for the State Bar of Michigan.

Mathis said many of the unresolved cases involve domestic violence issues.

"The magnitude of the problem is daunting, but through their volunteer efforts Michigan attorneys can and do help," Mathis said. "Their pro bono legal assistance in many cases enables domestic violence victims to live in homes free from violence for themselves and their children."

He said that by providing pro bono legal services, Michigan attorneys can help close the gap on the unmet legal needs of the nearly 3 million Michigan low-income residents that qualify for legal aid.

The problem is being addressed across the state.

Jackson attorney Jennifer Lamp will be a trainer in a program in October sponsored by the State Bar of Michigan to try to recruit more attorneys to give free services for people who want a divorce and have been involved in domestic violence.

Lamp, a committee member on the State Bar Committee on Domestic Violence, said she has noticed that people in Jackson County are not able to get divorced because it is too expensive.

"This is a particularly bad situation when you have domestic violence present - or when domestic violence begins with the onset of a separation," Lamp said. "It is a very troubling situation for a person to be trapped in a marriage when violence is present - not only for the victim but also the children. "

She said sometimes couples opt to have one party get an attorney in a divorce, leading to disadvantages to the unrepresented party.

"An attorney can only represent one party's interests in a divorce," she said. "So the unrepresented party may end up with a divorce judgment that does not preserve their right to child custody and/or parenting time, spousal support, division of retirement accounts and other very important rights. An unrepresented person may consent to the entry of a judgment without having an appreciation for the long-term legal consequences of their actions. At a minimum, people ought to at least hire an attorney to review their judgment and/or divorce settlement prior to signing it."

The State Bar of Michigan Domestic Violence Committee's training session for handling pro bono domestic violence family law cases will be held from 1-5 p.m. Oct. 26 at Thomas M. Cooley Law School's Auburn Hills campus.

There will be a simultaneous broadcast to Cooley's three other campuses in Ann Arbor, Grand Rapids and Lansing.

The training will cover initial client interviews, pleadings and pretrial and trial practices as they relate to family law cases that involve domestic violence.

It will also offer a comprehensive introduction to family and domestic violence law for attorneys new to this area of practice and will also serve as a great refresher for more experienced attorneys.

The training is free of charge for attorneys who commit to take on a pro bono family law case within six months.

Attorneys can register online at http://www.michbar.org/generalinfo/domesticviolence.cfm.

Published: Mon, Sep 3, 2012

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