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"Justice for All" aims to ease civil court cases for people without attorneys


The Michigan Supreme Court hopes a new initiative called "Justice for All" will make it easier for people to handle their own cases in civil court, if they can't afford an attorney.

Supreme Court Justice Brian Zahra is chair of a new commission that will make recommendations.

He says one needed change is cultural, because judges and attorneys in civil courts don't always treat people without lawyers with dignity and respect.

"People who come to court unrepresented are intimidated and they're afraid," says Zahra. "We need to make the courthouse more welcoming."

Other changes could include expanding the state's MI Legal Help website, and simplifying legal forms, some of which are understandable only to attorneys.

One big change has already happened. The Michigan State Bar has issued guidance to lawyers allowing them to offer limited scope representation. Lawyers can now offer clients help with just one aspect of their case without being obligated to see the whole case through. 

"Look, here's your problem, I can help you with this discrete, defined area, help you write a brief, or help you make an answer to your complaint," Zahra explains. "It'll cost $600, $1,000, and then you go on,  and here are the things you need to do as you move forward with your case."

Zahra says limited scope representation could also encourage more attorneys to do pro bono work, because they can do it for a specific, limited aspect of a case, without having to take too many hours away from their regular, for-pay practice.

Limited scope representation is relatively new, so he says there will have to be an outreach education effort to attorneys across the state.

Some of the other changes recommended by the Justice for All initiative could start to become apparent within a year, says Zahra; he hopes most of the changes will be completed within five years.

Tracy Samilton covers energy and transportation, including the auto industry and the business response to climate change for Michigan Public. She began her career at Michigan Public as an intern, where she was promptly “bitten by the radio bug,” and never recovered.
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