Videos offer self-help tips, no legal advice

By Lee Dryden
The Daily Record Newswire
DETROIT— A Wayne County program providing videos to help people navigate their own divorces isn’t expected to take business away from lawyers because the targeted audience would be unlikely to afford them.
The Family Domestic Division of Wayne County Circuit Court recently posted brief online tutorials on handling divorces in cases with and without children. About 70 percent of those seeking a divorce have at least one party without representation so there are endless questions.

“All of us family court judges are inundated with pro se litigants on a daily basis,” said Judge Kathleen M. McCarthy, who presides over the division.

“Our courtrooms have turned into a legal help center.”

While judges and court staff cannot provide legal advice, it is important to help people navigate the system — and the videos are a means of doing that, McCarthy said.

The judge said she has heard concerns from lawyers on a family law listserv, but pointed out that most of the people who need help have no-asset divorces.

“This is not considered a replacement for people seeking attorneys,” she said, adding that the education may help someone choose the right lawyer for their case. “This is another outreach effort.”

Carol F. Breitmeyer, who chairs the Family Law Section of the State Bar of Michigan, agreed the education effort isn’t detrimental to lawyers.

“I don’t think very many lawyers are competing for these people with no access. They don’t have any money,” said Breitmeyer of Breitmeyer
Cushman PLLC in Detroit. “I feel like it’s a great thing — a great tool. I hope it helps.

“The judges really struggle because they can’t offer legal advice.”

Despite the effort to arm the public with basic information, attorneys stress that some cases are just too complex for litigants to tackle on their own.

McCarthy said the videos resulted from a grant opportunity provided by Michigan Supreme Court Chief Justice Robert P. Young Jr. She said the idea came from Wayne Circuit Judge Susan L. Hubbard, a former family court judge with a marketing background.

The introductory video makes it immediately clear it doesn’t have all the answers.

“This video provides self-help information, not legal advice. It’s not intended to cover every possible situation or every possible option you may have.”

It reminds the viewer that state law prohibits the court from giving legal advice. It also covers basic information like timelines, filings, hearings, how to apply for a fee waiver request, and a link to a list of process servers.

There is another reminder that the do-it-yourself route may best be avoided in some cases: “If you and your spouse don’t agree on all issues, or your spouse didn’t answer your Complaint for Divorce, you may need legal help.”

Jessica Woll, of Woll & Woll PC in Birmingham, said the videos are well thought out and provide a model for other courts to follow.

“I was impressed by how easy and step-by-step it was,” she said. “People of all walks of life can follow it.”

The program will help ease the burden of overwhelmed, underfunded legal aid clinics with a months-long wait for help, Woll said.

Woll said some people can’t afford an attorney or decide they don’t need one in an amicable case. She added that providing do-it-yourself
resources “will impact a certain population of people that might have gotten an attorney” at the lower end of hourly rates.

Liisa Speaker, of Speaker Law Firm PLLC in Lansing, said the videos could prompt litigants to avoid hiring an attorney but added, “The people who can probably already do.”

The tutorial directs viewers to the Michigan Legal Help website for divorce forms and a list of legal self-help centers.

Angela Tripp, program director of Michigan Legal Help, said courts have “a duty to provide access to justice for all litigants, even those without attorneys.”

The site also offers links to resources to help locate a lawyer and highlights areas, such as spousal support calculation, where a lawyer may be needed.

“We understand that some cases are too complex for an individual to handle on their own,” she said.

Tripp said Michigan Legal Help occasionally hears complaints that its efforts take work away from lawyers, but the group’s research shows otherwise as the percentage of self-represented plaintiffs went up just slightly after its launch.

“Many low and moderate income families — especially families going through the stress of a divorce — do not have the cash available to retain an attorney,” she said.

The more complicated the divorce, the more likely an attorney needs to step in, practitioners say.

Potential clients should be warned that handling the case themselves is an especially bad idea if the other side has representation.

“You’re completely overmatched if one person has an attorney and the other side doesn’t,” Woll said.

Speaker added, “I wouldn’t want my client to go in front of a judge without an attorney.”

Attorneys are especially needed in divorces dealing with businesses, alimony, complicated tax or property issues, custody, addiction, and mental health, Woll said. Waiting too long to involve an attorney can result in clients spending more money than they would have if they had hired someone from the start.

People representing themselves don’t know what to request in court and may unknowingly waive their rights, especially in matters involving children, Speaker said.

“You can’t protect rights you don’t know you have,” she said. “Things can go badly when people represent themselves.”