Service added to South CountyPublished 5:20pm Monday, October 8, 2012
Even when the Berrien County Self-Help Legal Resource Center opened on the second floor of the St. Joseph courthouse in April 2009, there were plans for a companion office in Niles.
“With higher prices of fuel and transportation, we are trying to make it more convenient for the public to take care of their legal business,” said Deann Kuelbs, county coordinator, who will staff the office at 1205 N. Front St. in the South County Courthouse from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesdays.
Spun off from Kent County’s legal assistance center opened in 2002, the self-help legal center is designed to make information and forms available to people representing themselves in civil proceedings, including child custody and support, divorces with or without children, landlord-tenant disputes, personal protection orders, probate such as guardianships for adults and minors, parenting time motions and small claims.
The center in the former register of deeds office helps demystify an experience average citizens find confusing and intimidating.
“The only thing we do with criminal is help with expungements,” she said.
Legal advice is not given. Kuelbs, of Coloma, is not an attorney, though she knows her way around courthouses after retiring from the county clerk’s office after 30 years going back to Forrest Kesterke.
“We’re not part of the court, per se,” she said. “We just help them navigate the system and tell them what to expect. We’ve served 20,000 people since we opened.”
One factor in obtaining three-year grants to establish the center was one of the parties was not represented by an attorney in 80 percent of Friend of the Court cases.
Criminal defendants are constitutionally entitled to have a lawyer defend them at no cost.
Civil cases adhere to an opposite standard. Litigants must hire their own lawyers unless they can find one to represent them for free or get Legal Aid of Western Michigan (888-783-8190 or 888-418-1311) to help.
Kuelbs also promotes self-help available online at www.michiganlegalhelp.org or refers clients to the Michigan Attorney Referral Service (800-968-0738).
“Hours could change depending on public demand,” she said. “Civil judges have court on Wednesday. Referees and family judges have court on Thursdays. The center in St. Joseph is busy” — particularly Mondays, when 35 to 50 people walk in.
In 2008, 14,000 people represented themselves in Berrien County, including 1,250 divorces.
Retiring Chief Judge Alfred Butzbaugh was a driving force in opening a legal assistance office.
Butzbaugh saw having help available as bolstering court efficiency because people handling their own cases would be less likely to show up unprepared.
The former State Bar of Michigan president was in private practice for 35 years before Gov. Jennifer Granholm tapped him for the bench in 2003, when he was 63.