Bridging the justice gap
Students provide legal information, help people be heard

by Dottie Barnes       photo by Amanda Pitts

Facing a legal problem alone can be scary and confusing, said Akshita Patel, a 21-year-old Grand Valley senior majoring in legal studies.

Patel is preparing to attend law school and is one of many Grand Valley students who served an internship at The Legal Assistance Center in downtown Grand Rapids. The LAC, housed in the Kent County Courthouse, provides information for those who cannot afford an attorney.

Akshita Patel, a senior majoring in legal studies, listens to a client at The Legal Assistance Center, where Patel is a volunteer.
Akshita Patel, a senior majoring in legal studies, listens to a client at The Legal Assistance Center, where Patel is a volunteer.

“Most of the people coming in need help with family law issues,” said Patel, “like divorce, child custody, visitation or child support. We talk with people who come into the center and then give them the information and forms they need to navigate the courts and represent themselves.”

The center opened in 2002 and Grand Valley students have served there for the past five years. “The LAC was created to bridge the ‘justice gap’ between those who can afford legal representation and the few who qualify for free legal help,” said executive director Deborah Hughes.

Hughes said most of the people they help have lower incomes and have no other choice but to solve legal problems on their own. Most are referred to the center by the Clerk of Court’s office, the Friend of the Court or judges themselves. Many are referred by other agencies where they are seeking help.

The center served 17,000 people last year, most of them from Kent County, and the need is growing.

Hughes said the center’s goal is to help people be informed, be prepared and be heard. She said while most need help with family issues, the LAC also helps people with housing and consumer issues like landlord/tenant disputes, debt collection and small claims. She said student volunteers and interns are an essential part of the center.

“We couldn’t provide the service we do without our volunteers and interns,” said Hughes. “We provide students with training and quiz them on their legal knowledge before they begin working with the public. Our interns from Grand Valley are well-prepared and often already have knowledge about family law and the court system. We also appreciate that many speak at least one foreign language.”

Grand Valley students learn about opportunities at the LAC through faculty members. Ruth Stevens, assistant professor in the School of Criminal Justice and coordinator of Grand Valley’s ABA-approved Legal Studies program, said students from any major can volunteer at the center.

“It is a great opportunity for our students; the procedures and laws they are learning about in the classroom come to life,” said Stevens. “Students experience the real functioning of a courthouse and see how the law works in the lives of everyday people.”

Stevens said it is a great setting for students to develop important skills necessary for work in the legal field. “Students build on the listening, critical thinking and cultural competency skills that are emphasized in the Legal Studies curriculum and also learn how to converse with people in crisis and to be helpful and reassuring while maintaining boundaries,” she said.

Patel said she knew in high school that she wanted to become a lawyer. She was born in Zambia and her family moved to Grand Rapids when she was 12. She is a Spanish minor and is fluent in several languages.

“I learned a lot about legal issues at the center, but I also realized the importance of good communication skills,” said Patel. “I learned to ask the right questions to draw out necessary and accurate information. It is exciting to talk to new people each day and then refer to what the law says. It’s also gratifying to know that the information I give people will truly impact their lives, especially with custody cases.”

Yarenis Salazar has one month left in her seven-month internship at the LAC, and will graduate in April with a degree in legal studies. She is fluent in Spanish and her goal is to be a court interpreter.

The LAC does not give legal advice or provide representation, which can be challenging.

“It can be hard when people ask for my advice,” said Salazar. “Some want me to tell them what to do, or fill out forms for them. I can’t. I can only guide them and assure them that I can give them the information they need to move forward themselves. I encourage them to take a second look at their forms and to be sure to tell the judge everything.”

The Lansing native said her classes and professors at Grand Valley prepared her for what she would encounter at the center. “What I learned in my family law class was right on. Everything I have learned is applicable here,” she said. “I now know more about court rules, I’m more experienced with ethical issues and I have better interpreting skills. My professors are passionate about law and that makes me love it more.”

One of the LAC’s few full-time employees is Charlie Campbell, who serves as program coordinator and a paralegal. He graduated from Grand Valley in 2007 and was hired at the center in 2010.

“I was a history major who became interested in the law,” said Campbell. “I am thankful for my experience at Grand Valley. I learned how to manage people, make connections and think critically. My liberal education gave me a broader perspective and point of reference. We see many successful Grand Valley students come through here and go on to law school.”

Campbell said he also sees many successful people who are able to use the information they are given at the LAC for a positive outcome.

“It’s rewarding to see people be successful in mediation or able to get themselves out of a bad situation,” said Campbell. “This is what a democratic system is: free access to courts.”

The Legal Assistance Center is the first legal self-help center in Michigan, established by the Grand Rapids Bar Association, Kent County, Legal Aid, Michigan State Bar Foundation and the Grand Rapids legal community. It serves as a model for smaller centers in Ottawa, Berrien and Allegan counties and the online tool: www.michiganlegalhelp.org.
  

Page last modified November 18, 2013