When MichiganLegalHelp.org launched on August 17, 2012, initial estimates expected around 3,000 visits per week to the legal information website. According to Michigan Legal Help Project Manager Angela Tripp, “This estimate proved too conservative. Starting in January, there were over 5,000 visits per week, and that grew to over 6,000 per week by July. We are very gratified that so many people have turned to the website for help.”
The Michigan Legal Help website was created to provide free legal information to people who cannot afford to hire an attorney and need to represent themselves in simple legal matters. It makes legal information easier to understand and shows self-represented people how to navigate the court system properly and efficiently. The website contains information on many areas of law in the form of articles, toolkits, forms and instructional checklists to help prepare people who represent themselves in court. Many court forms can be completed using a simple question and answer interview format. The website can help users look for a lawyer in their area if they need more assistance, and includes information about legal self-help centers and local community services as well as details about the court where a website visitor’s legal issue may be handled.
In addition to the website, Michigan Legal Help works with communities to open local legal Self-Help Centers, with staff (called ‘navigators’) who help visitors find what they need on the website, answer basic questions about court practices and processes, and provide information about forms that are available on the website. Neither the website nor navigators can give legal advice; they provide only legal information.
Michigan Legal Help Self-Help Centers are now open in Wayne, Oakland, Allegan, Oscoda and Muskegon counties. More centers are expected to open over the next year, including in Marquette and Monroe counties. Information about locations and hours for the centers can be found on the MLH website. In addition, public librarians across the state are being trained to assist their patrons in finding the information they need on the website. People do not have to be at a self-help center or library to use the website, which is accessible via the Internet from any computer or mobile device.
“Many visitors take the time to share how the website has helped them handle a legal problem on their own, or to give suggestions on how Michigan Legal Help can be even better,” Tripp reports. “Some typical messages are: ‘This site was a very useful and informative tool. It has provided me what I need, to represent myself in my divorce hearing. Thank you sincerely,’ and, ‘I was so stressed about this process. Not having money for a lawyer was making me nervous about this entire process. But the website, walked me through the step by step questions with a sense of ease. I am so thankful for this service!!!’”
The Michigan Legal Help Program is the culmination of several years of work by the Solutions on Self-Help Task Force, which was established in 2010 by (then) Michigan Supreme Court Chief Justice Marilyn Kelly to improve and coordinate resources for self-represented persons. More than 100 individuals participated in the Task Force’s work, reflecting input from judges, bar associations, legal aid, local self-help centers, libraries and others. Many of these groups continue to collaborate with the effort which is managed by a nonprofit organization, Michigan Poverty Law Program, based in Ann Arbor.
As of August 1, 2013, MichiganLegalHelp.org contained 30 Toolkits, 74 Articles, 312 Common Questions (with answers), 19 Automated Interviews that populate a total of 50 different forms, and referral information for over 212 Organizations (including “Find a Lawyer” and “Community Organizations”). There are videos to educate people about using the website and what to expect when going to court. The legal information content available now is in the areas of Family Law, Protection from Abuse, Consumer Law, Housing Law, Expungement, Income Tax, and Public Benefits. More content is added regularly.
In the second quarter of 2013, website visitors used the automated interviews to create 7,359 sets of forms, placing Michigan fifth in the nation among states using these types of automated forms. Tripp said, “These numbers are impressive, as many other states are more populous and have had resources available for self-represented people for much longer than one year.” She also noted that the website has had more than 200,000 visits since the launch a year ago.
The response to MLH in its first year demonstrates the need for assistance for those who must represent themselves because they cannot afford to hire a lawyer or because nonprofit legal aid agencies do not have enough resources to help everyone who qualifies for their services. Also, courts are seeing an increasing number of self-represented persons; one court reported at least one self-represented party in 80% of all divorce cases and both parties in 50% of such cases.
The Michigan Legal Help Program plans to expand to cover more areas of law especially needed by low-income persons. In addition, a LiveHelp feature will be launched this fall enabling website visitors to chat online with navigators who can help them find what they need on the website.. In response to the fact that over 30% of website visitors access the site through a mobile device or tablet, an updated mobile version of the site will be available in September. Also, by year end, much of the content on the website will be available in Spanish.
The website also has links to a User’s Guide and informational flyers which can be downloaded and printed out for groups to distribute to potential website users. Questions or requests for other information can be directed to Angela Tripp via the feedback link on the website.