Sept. 2 2009 12:00 AM

A legal help center at the Ingham County Courthouse closes due to a funding shortfall

The Access to Justice Center was a quiet part of the Ingham County Courthouse, just a collection of brochures, packets and forms and a solitary employee. But those papers and that employee saw thousands of people come in over the past six years seeking advice on how to represent themselves in court.

Of the many people that came in over years, the ones that stick out most to the center’s one employee, ATJC Program Coordinator Brandon Scott, were the women who were representing themselves in a divorce or custody case. They would walk in distraught, sometimes crying, afraid and confused about the court system, and Scott would give them a roadmap to the legal system.

But, moments like this may never occur again at the Ingham County Courthouse. The center closed its doors Sept. 1.

“There are few things as thoroughly rewarding, as an attorney, as seeing someone who was crying, frightened and defeated when they first came in to meet with you leave your office smiling, newly armed with the information and knowledge they need to take back control of their life, their safety, and the safety of their children,” Scott said.

The center was managed and funded by the Legal Services of South Central Michigan’s Lansing office, which provides free legal representation for low-income people. Legal Services was hampered by two significant funding cuts in April. Angela Tripp, managing attorney for Legal Services’ Lansing office, said that the decision to cut the center was made to redirect funds to Legal Services.

“The rest of our organization provides free civil legal assistance and representation to people who can’t afford to get an attorney,” she said. “The (ATJC) had no screening of income. People can and did walk in there that made $100,000 a year and just didn’t want to pay for an attorney. We felt like it wasn’t fulfilling our core mission, which is to provide free legal assistance to poor people.”

The center was designed to be a self-help desk at the courthouse to assist people who were representing themselves and could not get specific legal advice or representation. Scott said one of the most notable things about the center is that it helped people of all demographics.

“What united them was a need to navigate the court system and the desire to do so with a bit of legal expertise on their side,” he said.

While Tripp and her office created and distributed pamphlets and funded the center, Scott worked at the courthouse to offer additional guidance to people seeking information from the center. He said he personally assisted nearly 5,000 individuals in matters of family law, landlord tenant law, collections, small claims and other civil matters.

He said he saw a sharp increase in visitors to the center over the past 12 months and noticed that deteriorating economic conditions increased the number of people choosing to represent themselves — pro se — rather than pay for a lawyer.

Legal Services will continue to provide legal representation and assistance for people who qualify — free legal services from are given after an income and assets screening and are looked at on a case-by-case basis.

Those who do not qualify for representation from Legal Services can access some of the forms and pamphlets the center provided at the Ingham County Clerk’s office, which is located inside the courthouse in downtown Lansing.

“If people qualify for our services they can get more help than they would get at (the ATJC), and if they don’t qualify for our services, they can get information from the clerk’s office,” she said.

Scott said he is concerned because many of their more unique and nuanced materials will no longer be available. He said that the loss of center would leave many people in the area without the support and guidance.

“In the months since I first posted a sign outside our door indicating that we would no longer be operating the center effective Sept. 1, 2009, I have received countless expressions of gratitude for the assistance that my office provided,” he said. “Handshakes, kind words, and even the occasional hug, these have really made the point that the service we offered was valued and needed.”