Supreme Court Justices set to hold meeting on civil legal needs in Detroit

How the state's judicial system handles debt collection, landlord tenant disputes and expungements will be among the issues two Michigan Supreme Court justices are hoping to hear about from residents during a Monday town hall meeting.

Chief Justice Bridget McCormack and Justice Brian Zahra will hear testimony and questions from Metro Detroit residents Monday during a public meeting of the Justice for All Task Force near downtown Detroit. It is scheduled for 6 p.m.-8 p.m. Monday at the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Union Hall, 1358 Abbott in Detroit. 

Michigan Supreme Court Justice Bridget Mary McCormack: "We judges ...  are on the front lines of what to do about this crisis."

McCormack and Zahra are seeking input from Michigan residents to help identify the needs they have on issues relating to the civil branch of the law. The information gathered from residents will  help shape a statewide plan to fill in the gaps of service for civil legal needs.

"We're trying to take inventory of what's out there," McCormack said. "It's a way for us to hear directly from the public about their experience of trying to navigate the court system on their own."

The task force wants to hear from affected residents as well as "community leaders or representatives who have a sense on the ground of what (residents) need most," she said.

McCormack said she realizes that the need for civil legal help is acute, especially on issues such as evictions where tenants usually don't have a lawyer and end up in an "unplanned forced move."

The state of Michigan also offers free civil legal help at its website  and has resources and kiosks at some courthouses to help residents, she said.

The are plans to host other town halls, particularly in  northern Michigan and rural counties, McCormack said. About 100 people attended a town hall meeting in Grand Rapids, also hosted by McCormack and Zahra.

The right to have legal counsel provided is a constitutional right but it only applies to criminal cases. People have to pay out of pocket for civil legal services, which creates problems for lower-income residents. 

“Through public-private partnerships, innovation, changing court practices, judicial education, and more focused resources, Michigan will be on path to 100%  access where everyone can find timely, meaningful and effective help navigating the court system and resolving their civil legal problems," Zahra said in a statement.

"I look forward to hearing from the public at the town hall meeting because ideas and experiences from real people will be critically important in helping us develop a plan that makes Michigan a national leader in access to justice.”

The National Center for State Courts recently awarded the task force a $100,000 grant, McCormack said.

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