The American Bar Association Standing Committee on Pro Bono and Public Service has eloquently stated, “[W]hen society confers the privilege to practice law on an individual, he or she accepts the responsibility to promote justice and make justice equally accessible to all people.”1 Part of our responsibility as lawyers is to provide pro bono services when our professional obligations permit.2 But the legal profession must do more. It is also critically important for us to work together to improve the justice system as a whole and collaborate with organizations outside of our profession to satisfy this responsibility and increase access to justice for all.
As stewards entrusted by the public to ensure equal justice under law, we should take stock of the things we do well while looking for opportunities for improvement. We do some things very well. For example, Michigan Legal Help (MLH) built a website that shares critical legal information and self-help tools to empower self-represented litigants to navigate the courts on their own.3 It is looked at as a national leader in self-help resources. We created statewide court forms for hundreds of legal processes, allowing more people to adequately bring their claims before judges.4 We set up eviction diversion programs across the state, giving courts, legal aid programs, and housing assessment and resource agencies the opportunity to collaborate on solutions to the eviction crisis in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.5
Michigan’s legal community can be proud of these accomplishments. But there remain vast areas in need of improvement. The newly created Justice for All Commission is charged by the Michigan Supreme Court with developing strategies to address those areas of need.6
HISTORY OF THE JUSTICE FOR ALL COMMISSION
In 2015, the Conference of Chief Justices and Conference of State Court Administrators (CCJ/COSCA) urged state supreme courts to take up the challenge of ensuring 100% access to the civil justice system.7 In response, in March 2019, the Michigan Supreme Court formed the Justice for All Task Force; in October 2019, it received a $100,000 grant from the National Center for State Courts (NCSC) to support its work.8 The task force brought together the many different stakeholders in Michigan’s civil justice arena — judges, State Court Administrative Office (SCAO) staff members, a legal librarian, a domestic violence advocate, representatives of the State Bar of Michigan, and lawyers from the legal aid community — to devise ways to increase access to justice. The task force featured geographic diversity, diversity of backgrounds, and philosophical diversity of thought.
Following the standard set by CCJ/COSCA, the Justice for All Task Force launched with a simple goal everyone could embrace: Michigan should provide 100% access to our civil justice system. Justice for all means access to the civil justice system for our neighbors, our communities, and people in every corner of Michigan. Following a framework created by the NCSC and gathering crucial information from across Michigan through focus groups, stakeholder summits, and town hall meetings, the task force’s first step was taking inventory of the resources available in the state and identifying strengths, gaps, barriers, and opportunities.
After the inventory was complete, the task force engaged in a strategic planning process, and agreed upon a vision that justice for all resides in the overlap of a welcoming, understandable, collaborative, adaptive, and trusted environment.9 A welcoming environment means that those engaged in the civil justice system do not perceive it as intimidating; if someone needs help, it will be available and accessible, and everyone is treated with dignity and respect. An understandable environment allows people to meaningfully engage with the civil justice system and use its tools to help address their problems regardless of their level of education, experience, or income. At every step, people feel informed and understand what has happened while gaining an understanding of what to do next.
The task force’s vision for a collaborative system requires community organizations to be integral partners in achieving better outcomes for their clients’ civil legal problems and problems that may give rise to future legal issues. The vision for an adaptive environment suggests that all partners in the civil justice system will embrace a culture of service — just as we appreciate personal service at a restaurant or store, court consumers should be able to expect quality, innovative legal service that addresses their individual needs based on the complexity of their problems. Finally, we envisioned a trusted environment in which people see the civil justice system as necessary and useful — a place that helps address their problems. The civil justice system must be accountable to its communities and responsive to community needs.10
The task force released its Strategic Plan and Inventory Report in December 2020 and identified four goals necessary to achieve 100% access to the civil justice system.11 Reaching those goals will require collaboration from lawyers, libraries, non-court government offices, and court staff from across Michigan.
The first goal is promoting a culture of service, which will help our justice system be more approachable and navigable, leading to more effective engagement with the people of Michigan.12
The second goal is simplifying and streamlining processes, rules, and laws. This is no small matter; it will require SCAO to revise forms, the Supreme Court to reconsider Michigan Court Rules, and the legislature to update and simplify pertinent laws.13
The third goal is providing a spectrum of affordable, easy-to-access legal resources, available to everyone, to match their individual needs. This includes expanding the continuum of services and availability of self-help centers and legal aid and may require regulatory reform in the practice of law as well as changes to the ways lawyers do business.14
The fourth goal reflects the notion that the civil justice system is at its best when it works with and integrates local resources and community-based organizations and requires the commission to study successful collaborative efforts in Michigan and across the country and find ways to replicate them statewide.15
The strategic plan also called for the creation of a Justice for All Commission, which was established in January by a Michigan Supreme Court administrative order.16 The commission includes representatives from a variety of justice partners — judges, court administrators, prosecutors and criminal defense attorneys, legal services providers, tribal courts, the Michigan State Bar Foundation, and the State Bar of Michigan.17 It also incorporates members from the other branches of government including two state legislators, an at-large gubernatorial appointee, and representatives from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services and the Michigan State Housing Development Authority, and includes representatives from areas not commonly associated with the civil justice system — education, health care, libraries, and nonprofit organizations including faith-based groups, business and professional organizations, and civic groups.18
THE COMMISSION’S ONGOING WORK
Creating the commission was easy. Getting the work started was a challenge; this organization has never existed in Michigan. We developed an executive team to lead the commission, along with four permanent committees to be supplemented by project-based workgroups. Currently, we have six workgroups; that number may vary depending on need and demand. In addition to commission members, we sought innovative and motivated people to fill the rosters of the committees and workgroups.
The inventory and strategic planning process revealed many positives related to access to justice in Michigan along with many short-term and long-term projects with the potential to dramatically improve how our justice system functions, especially for people without lawyers. The commission’s work is guided by these efforts.
Many proposals outlined in the strategic plan build upon the foundation of Michigan Legal Help and enhancing the use of technology to increase access to justice. The MLH website currently reaches more than 50,000 people weekly, giving them access to easy-to-understand legal information; tools to create forms and address legal problems; and referrals to lawyers, community organizations, and other resources.19 One of the commission’s six workgroups is leading an effort to improve the MLH Guide to Legal Help and other triage and referral resources in Michigan through usability testing and better coordination of referrals.20 Another workgroup will work with MLH and SCAO as they integrate MiFile, the statewide standard electronic filing solution, with MLH’s do-it-yourself tools (which complete court forms). Website visitors currently use the DIY tools to create upwards of 400 sets of legal forms per day which they can file in court.21
MLH also teams up with local courts, libraries, legal aid programs, bar associations, and community organizations to form and launch self-help centers across the state. Currently, there are 21 self-help centers operating in courthouses, libraries, and buildings of community organizations. Some are staffed by non-lawyer navigators who can answer questions that do not require legal advice; all centers give people access to computers, internet, and printers — tools they might need to help them address a pressing legal problem in addition to the information and tools on MLH.22 There is a workgroup dedicated to improving efforts related to self-help centers across the state ranging from advocating for funding to open more centers, providing more support to existing centers, helping centers collect data on the services they provide, and improving technological tools that support their work.
There are also many projects the commission is currently working on that do not involve Michigan Legal Help. One workgroup is dedicated to studying the summary proceedings process and advocating for changes that improve access, efficiency, just results, and uniformity across the state. Similar work is being done by a workgroup looking at the debt collection process.23 The commission has attracted funding and technical assistance from the NCSC and Pew Charitable Trusts. Both organizations are helping with research (including gathering information about similar efforts in other states), data collection and analysis, and creating visual process maps to help outline the barriers and shortcomings of the current summary proceedings and debt collection processes.
There is also a committee tasked with creating shared frameworks and standards to make data sharing possible among justice system partners as well as improving the consistency, accuracy, transparency, and accessibility of court data.24 This committee will partner with Pew and possibly other organizations across the country on these efforts. These data-related goals have been prioritized because at many points in the inventory process, survey respondents and focus group participants pointed to the lack of usable data as a barrier to collaborating with courts and their ability to help people with legal needs.
Better data and the capacity to share it have also been flagged as a method to improve existing collaborations between courts and other justice system partners such as expungement clinics and eviction diversion programs. Other committees and workgroups within the commission are studying these successful collaborative efforts to determine how to best replicate them throughout the state and in other practice areas to increase access to justice.25 Workgroups and committees are also looking for opportunities to gather and incorporate user feedback and incorporate more user-centered design principles into more aspects of the justice system.
The Justice for All Commission will likely bring about regulatory reform, building on the steps already taken with limited-scope representation allowing people to access the exact legal services they need at an affordable cost. It is important to note that any regulatory or practice reform advanced by the commission will be geared toward improving access to justice to those unserved or underserved by the legal profession; the committee will not advocate change solely for the sake of change.
These are but some of the commission’s current projects, and the intention is to add new items to our agenda as we accomplish others. We are honored and excited to chair this commission. The plan is very ambitious but setting lofty goals is the only way to achieve the outcome the people of Michigan so desperately need: a civil justice system that works for everyone. Through this effort, we aim to make Michigan a model for the nation.