|By Gabi Moore|
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.
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 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.
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.
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.