Access To Justice Seeks Support

August 20, 2004
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GRAND RAPIDS — The State Bar of Michigan is in the sixth year of its ongoing Access to Justice Development Campaign because the need for legal aid programs that serve low-income Michigan residents just never stops.

The Access to Justice Fund coordinates and supports private giving to civil legal aid programs that address the most pressing unmet civil legal needs of the state’s poor, said state bar President Scott Brinkmeyer, an attorney with Mika, Meyers, Beckett and Jones.

The cases supported by Access to Justice funds are not fee-generating cases, such as personal injury, sexual harassment or products liability cases; they carry no significant financial reward for either the legal aid client or his attorney. Legal aid programs that do accept fee-generating cases are ineligible for Access funds, Brinkmeyer said.

“These are cases where people might have housing problems, or medical issues, child custody issues or domestic violence issues — basic survival issues,” he explained.

“We’re really looking to help the families, single moms, children and the elderly. Our goal is to open those courthouse doors and even the justice system playing field as much as we can.”

Unlike the criminal defense system, there is no constitutional guarantee that funding will be provided for poor people with civil legal needs, he pointed out.

Access to Justice serves about 52,000 people each year through about 40 legal aid programs statewide, said Candice Crowley, the state bar’s manager of justice initiatives.

Since its inception in 1998, the Access to Justice campaign has raised more than $4.5 million in pledges, donations and planned gifts. Last year the state bar raised a record $1.3 million for the program.

This year, the state bar hopes to get a bigger boost from West Michigan via a corporate reception from 5:30-7 p.m., Wednesday, Sept. 22, at the Peninsular Club.

The bar held a corporate reception three years ago in the Detroit area and raised in excess of $75,000, Brinkmeyer noted.

“This is really breaking new ground for us because we’ve not tried anything like this outside of Detroit,” he said. “This first meeting is more in the way of a consciousness raising, public awareness reception, but we hope it will lead to contributions.

“Business people frequently are skeptical about what lawyers might be coming to them for money for, so I imagine we’ll have some hurdles to get over in teaching our community and our corporate friends in Grand Rapids about the need and about how worthwhile this program is.”

There are four or five main legal aid funding providers in the state, said Crowley. In West Michigan, it’s Western Michigan Legal Services. There’s also the Legal Assistance Center in the Kent County courthouse and the Michigan Migrant Legal Assistance Program.

According to the state bar, new demographic data reveals there is currently one lawyer for every 322 people above the poverty line in the state of Michigan, but only one legal aid lawyer for every 7,000 individuals at or below the poverty line.

About 80 percent of the civil legal needs of the eligible low-income people in the country are simply unmet, Brinkmeyer said. There are not enough legal aid lawyers or pro-bono lawyers to meet the need and funding is one of the biggest problems, he added.

“As president of the state bar this year, I’m seeing that more and more of our members not only contribute money and pledges, but contribute a lot of their time to defer some of the responsibility from the very low numbers of legal aid lawyers and take on a share of that.”

On top of everything else, there are diminishing funds from other sources, particularly the federal government, Brinkmeyer observed. Contributions to the Legal Services Corp. — one of the primary conduits through which a lot of legal aid funds are disseminated nationally — have lessened substantially over the past decade, as well.

All Access to Justice contributions are received and administered by the nonprofit Michigan State Bar Foundation.

Donors can designate that their dollars go to a specific legal aid program or have their donation spread among legal aid programs statewide. A company in Grand Rapids, for instance, could cut a check for Access to Justice and designate it toward the operation of Western Michigan Legal Services.

“One hundred percent of that donation passes through,” Crowley noted. The grant process is once a year, and the distribution of dedicated funds occurs four times a year, she said.

Donors also can contribute to an Access to Justice endowment fund to assure longevity of services.    

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