Represent yourself? Of course you can! Legal services are often unavailable to many because they cannot afford it, which has created an access -to-justice crisis. In response to this crisis, several legal professionals have made it their mission to bridge this gap. Everyone needs legal services at some point in their life; therefore, legal services should be available to people regardless of their wealth and status.
Believe it or not, you can provide yourself with legal services. With the right materials, you can effectively represent yourself in simple legal matters. And Michigan Legal Help is here to HELP!
I am currently a participant in the Access to Justice Technology Fellowship Program. This program is designed to provide law students with a dynamic learning experience that merges cutting edge legal education with practical experience. ATJ Fellows work on innovative programs and initiatives aimed to improve our civil justice system. As a Fellow, I am spending my summer working with the Michigan Legal Help Program in Ann Arbor, Michigan with a fellow classmate, Andy Kemmer.
The Michigan Legal Help Program is composed of the Michigan Legal Help website and affiliated local self-help centers. The program works with judges, courts, lawyers, bar associations, nonprofit legal aid agencies, legal self-help centers, libraries, and many others to promote coordinated and quality assistance for persons representing themselves in civil legal matters in Michigan.
The Michigan Legal Help website is designed for people who are handling their own legal matters. The website does not give legal advice. Instead it provides legal information that can used to: (1) learn more about specific legal problems, (2) help you create court forms, and (3) refer you to legal help, if necessary.
My position with Michigan Legal Help (MLH) presents the opportunity to cultivate the skills, knowledge, and competencies to become a part of the next generation of innovative leaders. Working alongside MLH staff attorneys, my fellowship duties include:
- Developing content and maintenance for the MLH website
- Learning plain language writing skills
- Drafting and testing new Do-It-Yourself document assembly forms interviews
- Assisting with staffing LiveHelp
- Engaging in the launch of the new triage module.
The Michigan Legal Help website has a lot of useful information, but it does not cover all areas of law. Thus, there is a need to add more topical areas to serve a greater population of people. I am currently working on the expansion of our housing tools. As of now, the website only has information about basic housing issues, such as Leases, Landlord/Tenant matters, Mobile Homes, Eviction, Security Deposits, and Subsidized Housing. I am working to expand the housing matters to include foreclosure by developing several articles regarding Property Tax Foreclosure. Each of the articles serves a unique purpose. Some are used to simply educate someone on the legal issue. Other articles are used to guide someone through the process, which include filling out court forms that need to be filed.
Plain Language Writing Skills
As a law student, I frequently use an excessive amount of commas and colorful language. But that has changed since my arrival at Michigan Legal Help. The Michigan Legal Help website is designed for an average person, who potentially knows nothing about the law. Understanding that the average reading level of adult American is 8th grade, I carefully craft my articles to accommodate the average reading level.
As an organization, we aim for all our materials to be around a 6th grade reading level. One of the easiest ways to accomplish this goal is avoiding “legalese” altogether. To make sure I identify all legalese and other complex words I use WriteClearly.
WriteClearly is a free plain language authoring tool. It is easy to use and does not require you to install anything. You can analyze a whole document or select a particular passage. The program identifies sentences that are too long and words that are too complex, which both attribute to a higher reading level.
I conduct user testing in a few different ways. I have gone out in the community and ask people for feedback on the website. We’ve received feedback that some of the icons are hard to decipher on a mobile device. Acknowledging that the website appears differently on a mobile device and a PC, Michigan Legal Help developed three versions of the website so it can be used on any device.
I am also responsible for doing Quality Assurance on the tool-kits and articles on the website. This includes reviewing/updating substantive information and testing internal/external resource links.
Additionally, I test the document assembly forms interviews by going through all the possible pathways. The interviews ask a series of questions that collect the necessary information needed to fill in court forms. I check for typos and errors in the questions and make sure program populates the correct document according to the answers given.
There are very few opportunities to actually interact with clients at Michigan Legal Help. My primary interaction with clients is via LiveHelp. LiveHelp is an instant messaging tool that helps visitors navigate to the information they are looking for. As a LiveHelp agent I do not offer legal advice. I merely present legal information that is already on the website.
Michigan Legal Help is dedicated to empowering people to participate in the civil justice system as a means to close the access to justice gap. I believe in its mission and I am grateful to be a part of such a great movement. Each of my projects present an opportunity to impact the delivery of legal services in a positive way. This website and its components offer legal services to people who would not otherwise have access. The website is designed with the goal of assisting as many people as possible. The more people that have access to legal services, even if its self-help, is one step closer to closing the access to justice gap.
The most advanced justice system in the world is a failure if it does not provide justice to the people it is meant to serve. Access to justice is therefore critical.”
-Hon. Beverley McLachlin, P.C., Chief Justice of Canada