There are frequent articles about the need for legal services for low-income populations. How does MCL address this issue in our community?
In this case the press has it right . . . as the public budget crisis hits court systems, the cuts are disproportionately from the civil side . . . self-help centers are being overwhelmed at the same time that service staff and hours are being cut. Self-represented litigants jam up an already overburdened civil docket and . . . more times than not . . . leave without relief or resolution because they came unprepared. Now they have to be rescheduled, using up yet another time slot on a future docket. Repeat, repeat, repeat. It is a downwardly spiraling process that the courts do not have the tools or budget to address. However, this is where law schools and law students have a great opportunity to step in with a win-win solution. Our school works collaboratively with our Superior Court on two fronts.
Court directed mediation: Through the law school’s Mandell Gisnet Center for Conflict Management, we train, coordinate, and staff (with trained students and volunteer local attorneys) a successful court-directed mediation program that moves small-claims, pro per, and limited civil cases (voluntarily . . . but with a heavy nudge from the bench) into our mediation programs. Simple cases are actually mediated in the hallway at the courthouse with supervised student mediators (all trained through at least a 30 hour ADR certificate program). More complex or contentious cases are scheduled for sessions that are held at the law school. With an almost 80% settlement rate, the courts love it, the parties report positive experiences, and our law students get real experience and love it.
Community clinical workshops: I know that law school legal clinics are not a new idea, but as the services of our local self-help center at the Court have been cut back, we have coordinated with the Court to open replacement workshops and clinics at the law school. It allows us to leverage law students who want more clinical experience (and will pay tuition units) to cover topics and times (late afternoon-evenings) that are being cut back at the Court.
Rural Legal Services: Our most recent idea in development is to partner with the County free-library network to provide “face-to-face” advisory clinic appointments . . . using iPads checked out at the library desk. Supervised law students would use FaceTime to provide self-help advisory services throughout our remote rural communities. Many have no real access to legal advice and would need to miss a day of work and drive more than an hour or two to get to services at the Courthouse.