Partnership leads to self-help legal center

The Legal Assistance Center partnered with a Kentwood District Court to open a self-directed Legal Assistance Center in Kentwood earlier this month.

The 62-B District Court, 4740 Walma Ave. SE, now houses the second Legal Assistance Center in the county. Deborah Hughes, executive director of the LAC, said its aim is to provide legal resources for patrons.

“It is currently the case that 70 to 80 percent of people who appear in civil (cases) are not represented by an attorney,” Hughes said. “They cannot afford an attorney and don’t have access to free legal representation.”

Since the new legal center is self-directed, there is no staff available to help. The center does not provide legal advice or representation. However, Hughes said there are tools and resources available for people dealing with legal matters.

There are computers available for people to search for lawyers on the Grand Rapids Bar Association’s website, a phone and legal forms that deal with civil suits under $25,000, such as eviction forms regarding landlords and tenant disputes.

Michele White, 62-B District Court court administrator/magistrate, said there are information packets about filing for a personal protection order or divorce, as well as brochures that explain the different types of courts, such as the Kent County Circuit Court at 180 Ottawa Ave. NW, where the Legal Assistance Center headquarters is located.

“The center is available to everyone, not just residents of Kentwood,” White said. “So, people who live in Cutlerville or anywhere are able to use it instead of going downtown to get the appropriate forms they need. A lot of people don’t know where to go to get help, so for the layperson who is not familiar with the court system, the center will be a place where they can find the necessary resources they need.”

According to Hughes, the downtown LAC assists about 18,000 people per year. Unlike the new location, the downtown location is staffed and has volunteers who are mostly students studying law from Grand Valley State University and Davenport University.

Although it is yet too early to grade the project, Hughes said the success of the self-guided center will be rated by a number of factors.

“This is a big experiment for us to see whether or not people are able to use it successfully,” Hughes said. “We are tracking use in two different ways, by asking people to sign in on a sign-in sheet, and we are also tracking the consumption of resources.

“So for instance, how quickly do we run out of forms and brochures? It is convenient because the center is located right by the clerk’s office, and although they are not able to give legal advice, they will probably find out if people come out of the center saying, ‘Gosh, that was really helpful, or gosh, I need more information or I need help to figure things out.’”

The LAC is a nonprofit legal help center that is free to the public, and patrons are assisted on a walk-in basis. Although it is located in the court, LAC is not part of the court.

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