GRAND RAPIDS — The effort by the Grand Rapids Bar Association to establish a Legal Assistance Center began nearly three years ago.
Come September, when the new county courthouse opens, that effort will be realized.
The Legal Assistance Center, or LAC for short, has been designed by the GRBA to help residents who are without legal representation.
First, the center will determine whether they have a legal problem. If they do, then the LAC will help them find an attorney who can advise them and, if needed, represent them. Staff from the GRBA lawyer referral service and Legal Aid of West Michigan will provide the legal assistance.
But even if the problem isn’t a legal one, the center can still help.
“If it’s not something that can be handled in the legal arena, we have several community agencies that we can make a referral to, and they will be able to help them more appropriately,” said Lauri Parks, GRBA project director for the center.
Over the years, the Bar has learned that close to half of these calls for help do not require legal assistance.
“If it is a legal problem, then we will be able to determine whether or not they qualify for Legal Aid,” she added. “If they do, then they can, of course, see a Legal Aid attorney.”
If someone’s income level is too high to qualify for Legal Aid, the referral service can still provide a consultation with an attorney.
“For $25 they can be matched up with an attorney that specializes in that particular area of the law and they will get a 30-minute consultation with that attorney. If they want to hire that attorney, then they will work out the attorney fees from that point on,” said Parks.
“If they do not want to hire an attorney, or for some reason they feel they can’t afford to hire an attorney, we’ll have information available through our computer system that will assist people in pro se matters, such as landlord-tenant and small claims issues.”
Currently the referral service is housed in the association’s headquarters on the second floor of the Waters Building at 161 Ottawa Ave. NW. But once the courthouse opens, the service will move across the street to 180 Ottawa Ave. NW.
Parks said the LAC will have about 1,800 square feet on the building’s fifth floor, nearly the amount of space the Bar had initially asked for, but wasn’t certain it would get.
When the courthouse plans were first revealed in 1999, the center was to be situated in an area measuring about 800 square feet on the first floor behind the elevators.
“The county recently offered us additional space on the fifth floor,” said Parks. “We’re anticipating to have about five offices, a waiting area and a conference room. Before, we would not have had a conference room or a waiting area for people.”
The Bar has mapped out a three-year $1.4 million budget for the LAC. The center’s fund-raising effort is still going on. Co-chaired by Judge Patrick Bowler and attorney Jon Muth, the drive needs about $400,000. The Bar hopes to announce that it has hit the $1 million mark at its annual meeting on May 17.
“We did get $150,000 from the State Bar of Michigan, which was the largest single grant they’ve ever given to a single organization,” said Parks.
Other grants came from the local Bar, $165,000; the Legal Services Corp., $74,000; the Dyer Ives Foundation, $6,000; and the State Bar’s Open Justice Commission for $4,650. In addition, Atlman & Weil donated $42,000 worth of planning assistance.
For more information or to make a contribution, call the Bar at 454-5550.
The idea for the LAC surfaced in October 1998. Muth said the center would fill the same void in the legal community that Cornerstone Community Mental Health did for that field. He added that the center, one of the first of its kind in the nation, would pay for itself in the long-run by helping to make the court system more efficient.
“It’s something that is pretty distinctive around the country,” said Kent County Chairman Steve Heacock of the LAC. “We think it will be of great assistance for people who wander in and are looking for help.”
“The Bar fought long and hard — not in an adversarial way, but by putting their shoulder to the wheel — to get the government to agree this was a needed element of a courthouse,” said Grand Rapids Mayor John Logie. “It certainly fits the goal of the Bar Association for increasing the access to justice.”
“It’s going to be a really innovative and neat program,” said 3rd Ward City Commissioner Scott Bowen.
“People are going to see firsthand the extent of work that lawyers do in the pro-bono area. The LAC is going to expand that whole pro-bono practice.”