Operating Protocols for Michigan Legal Help–Affiliated Self-Help Centers

I. Introduction and Purpose

These protocols apply to all local Self-Help Centers (SHC) selected to be part of the Michigan Legal Help Program (MLHP) and affiliated with the MichiganLegalHelp.org website (MLH). In order to meet mutual goals of assuring quality and consistency throughout the Michigan Legal Help Program statewide, each SHC is expected to operate according to these protocols. These protocols are subject to change; revised protocols will be circulated via the MLH Navigator listserv and posted at MichiganLegalHelp.org/navigator.

The SHCs are part of the overall vision of MLHP, which is to promote coordination and quality of support for persons representing themselves in civil legal matters in Michigan. MLHP helps communities open Self-Help Centers that use the statewide self-help website www.MichiganLegalHelp.org to:

  • Provide access to legal information and Do-It-Yourself court forms to individuals in Michigan who are representing themselves in court or need information about legal topics.
  • Provide court staff, librarians, and others with a helpful resource to which they can refer self-represented litigants who need assistance.
  • Aid in the efficiency of court operations by providing self-represented litigants with access to quality legal information, access to Do-It-Yourself tools that will assist them in completing specific court forms, and jurisdiction-specific procedural instructions for common and simple legal matters.
  • Provide links to local legal organizations and private bar referral services.
  • Provide referrals to local community organizations for individuals seeking non-legal assistance related to their legal problems.

II. Operations and Services

A. Location: Each SHC should be located in a space convenient to the public, such as a courthouse law library or other dedicated room in a courthouse; a public library; or a community center.

B. Hours of operation: Each SHC should establish and maintain regular hours of operation that provide the most effective access possible for the public.

C. Technical requirements: Each SHC must have one or more workstations (computer, monitor, keyboard, and mouse) and printer; headphones and a privacy screen for each workstation; and a high-speed internet connection. For larger Self-Help Centers with a high volume of traffic expected, multiple workstations will be necessary.

D. Planning committee: Each SHC must have a local planning committee. The local planning committee should be chaired by a key leader such as a chief or other judge, or another lead stakeholder. Members of the committee should include other major local stakeholders, including (but not limited to) representatives from: local legal aid organization(s); judiciary and clerk staff from the jurisdiction(s) the SHC will serve; the local bar association; the county board; domestic violence survivor advocate groups; and other social or civic community organizations. Other community partners should be recruited as stakeholders, even if they do not serve on your planning committee.

Each SHC’s local planning committee is responsible for working with MLHP to complete the SHC planning and implementation process. The planning committee chair must ensure that the necessary partners are invited and engaged, and facilitate the planning process (with assistance from MLHP).

E. Financial lead: Each SHC must designate an appropriate entity that will be responsible for handling the financial aspects of the SHC. This stakeholder or “lead applicant” will employ the designated navigator, if any, and will handle purchasing of equipment and supplies, annual accounting, financial reporting, and other relevant financial and related administrative tasks.

F. Navigators: Each SHC should identify one or more Navigator(s) to staff the SHC. Navigators are non-lawyers who assist SHC visitors using the Michigan Legal Help website and provide other appropriate assistance. They do not give legal advice. Navigators are employees of the SHC or the entity where the SHC is housed, not of MLHP.

Continuity of staffing is an important goal. Navigators should be available whenever the SHC is open to the public. Having a primary Navigator who is a volunteer is not an ideal long-term solution, but is permissible, subject to adequate supervision. Having attorneys serve as Navigators is also not ideal since the Navigator must provide only information and not legal advice. If attorneys are used, they should be instructed in the Navigator role to avoid creating an attorney-client relationship.

G. Training of Navigators and other key personnel: All Navigators and any other key personnel, such as supervisors or assistants, must satisfactorily complete training provided by MLHP or its designees. This training will help Navigators and other key personnel develop knowledge and quality skills to provide Navigator services, to comply with ethical and other guidelines to avoid the unauthorized practice of law (including distinguishing between information and legal advice), and for any related administrative or supervisory duties. MLHP will provide (and periodically update) recorded trainings for Navigators who are hired after the initial training of SHC Navigator staff.

H. Supervision of Navigators: Each SHC shall provide adequate supervision of SHC Navigators. Supervision shall include the following: overseeing the statistics and data collection about SHC visitors; conformity with these Protocols; the general operation of the SHC; regular performance evaluations of the Navigator(s); and all other aspects of supervision normally undertaken for an employee. The supervisor shall also help facilitate the Navigator’s relationship with court staff and other key stakeholders, as needed. All Navigators, volunteers, and other staff of a SHC should have written position descriptions summarizing their expected duties.

I. Volunteers: If a SHC chooses to use volunteers, protocols should be developed to provide for their screening and training. The SHC’s Navigator(s) must provide oversight of volunteers, and their work should routinely be evaluated by the Navigator or the Navigator’s supervisor.

J. Plan for sustainability: Before opening, each SHC must outline a plan for long-term sustainability of the site and the costs associated with operation of the site, including Navigator salaries, occasional computer/printer upgrades and maintenance, and office supplies.

K. Requirement to use Michigan Legal Help website: Because the SHCs are based on the Michigan Legal Help website, all SHCs must use the website and its materials. The SHCs must not distribute other versions of materials that are available on MLH, create or use their own web pages covering those topics, or provide links to other resources covering those topics. MLHP will develop a customized local home page that leads to the statewide website.

It is not expected that supplemental materials and resources will be needed in the areas of law covered by the website, particularly since the website will include information about local court procedures and SCAO forms that must be accepted by all courts. However, if a SHC believes that any supplemental materials or other resources are needed in areas covered by the website, these must be reviewed and approved by MLHP before use. SHCs are also asked to share with MLHP online or other materials and resources in areas not yet covered by the MLH website in order to receive input and help ensure consistent messages by the overall Michigan Legal Help project.

All courts related to the SHC must accept pleadings and court forms produced using the website. All court forms used on MLH will be SCAO-approved.

L. Requirement to use Statewide Evaluation Protocols: Statewide evaluation of the MLH-affiliated SHCs is a goal of the MLHP. MLHP would like to create SHC Evaluation Protocols after seeking input from SHC steering committees and navigator staff. These Protocols would assist in improving individual SHCs and the overall Michigan Legal Help Program, and also contribute to future planning. In the event that SHC Evaluation Protocols are created, each SHC site must use the statewide evaluation protocols. Whenever possible, each SHC should keep statistics concerning the number of users, types of materials accessed, and other data that is useful to SHC operations. All SHCs are expected to participate in any evaluation projects undertaken by the MLHP.

M. Requirement to use Michigan Legal Help branding and cooperate in communications to the public: Each SHC must also use the Michigan Legal Help branding or co-branding protocols provided by MLHP identifying the SHC as a partner program. Each SHC must submit proposed public announcements, press releases, and similar communications to MLHP for advance review.

N. Commitment to keeping the Michigan Legal Help website current: Each SHC must help MLHP keep the statewide website up-to-date by providing MLHP with information upon request or advising MLHP should local procedures change. Assistance from the SHCs will also be welcome regarding local community and legal resources to be listed on the Michigan Legal Help website. MLHP will consider all input in good faith, but final decisions about entities, links, and resources to be listed or other content to be posted on the Michigan Legal Help website rest with MLHP.

O. Integration within the court: The SHC staff should arrange regular meetings with court administration, judicial officers, and other operational staff to discuss administrative and general issues facing self-represented litigants. These meetings may be coordinated by staff or members of the local planning committee.

P. Community collaboration: Each SHC site should use the referrals available on the MLH site and develop referral relationships with all appropriate community organizations and lawyer referral services to ensure efficient and effective referral of matters where counsel is necessary.

Q. Legal referrals: SHC staff must not refer litigants to any particular attorney for representation. All referrals for representation or other services must be to an office or entity listed on the MLH website. These will include legal aid, bar association lawyer referral programs, and recognized specialty pro bono panels.

III. Scope of Services

A. Each SHC must provide services that are competent, neutral, and unbiased, and that are designed to provide practical legal information to self-represented litigants and do not provide legal advice or create an attorney-client relationship.

B. When a litigant cannot be effectively assisted in the SHC, staff shall promptly refer that litigant to appropriate legal assistance whenever possible.

C. No SHC staff shall provide assistance on any issue in which the litigant using SHC services is actively represented by an attorney. If a person has a Limited Scope attorney, SHC staff may assist the litigant in the parts of the case that are not covered by the Limited Scope attorney.

D. SHCs should assist litigants to the extent possible whether or not the litigants live in the county where the SHC is located, or whether or not the litigants have a case in that court.

E. Each SHC must comply with all applicable ethics rules, laws, or regulations and must also adopt the following ethical guidelines and make them known to all staff and volunteers.

IV. Ethical Guidelines for Self-Help Centers

A. Independence and integrity. All SHC staff must at all times uphold the independence and integrity of the site.

B. Avoiding inappropriate conduct. All SHC staff must recognize that they may be perceived by the public as representatives of the court or the justice system and must at all times avoid engaging in conduct that creates the appearance of impropriety.

C. Impartiality and diligence. All SHC staff must perform their duties impartially and diligently. Impartiality means delivering services in a neutral manner. Diligence requires that the staff provide litigants with pertinent information to allow them to address their matter or bring it before the court. This may include appropriate referrals to other resources as well as direct information and assistance at the SHC.

D. Respect and patience. All SHC staff must be aware of the social and economic differences that exist among litigants and treat users of the center with patience and respect. However, if a litigant becomes unruly, disruptive, violent, or harasses SHC staff, staff may ask the litigant to leave the office.

E. Bias and prejudice. All SHC staff must assist litigants who seek assistance without exhibiting bias or prejudice based on race, sex, religion, national origin, age, disability, sexual orientation, or other similar factors.

F. Competent legal information. SHC staff must provide the litigants who seek assistance with accurate procedural and legal information and education so that the litigants will have increased access to the court. SHCs are not intended to replace private counsel.

G. Notification of limits of service. SHC staff should ensure visitors understand that no attorney-client relationship exists between the center, or its staff, and the visitor. SHC staff should ensure visitors understand that communications between the SHC visitor and the SHC staff are not privileged and that the services may be provided to the other party in litigation. This information is included in each MLH SHC brochure, and the brochure can be used to educate clients about these limitations.

H. Public comment. SHC staff must not make any public comment about the litigants or about any pending or impending matter in the court.

I. Gifts or payments. SHC staff must not accept anything of value in the form of gifts, favors, bequests, or loans from the litigants whom they assist, since this may give the appearance of impropriety or partiality.

J. Communications with officers of the court. SHC staff must avoid ex parte communications with judges or judges’ staff. Communications about purely procedural matters or the functioning of the court are allowed and encouraged.

K. Communications with represented litigants. SHC staff must not provide assistance on any issue on which an attorney actively represents a litigant. This does not prohibit assistance on how to file a substitution of attorney or respond to a request to be relieved as counsel.

L. Attorneys volunteering in a Self-Help Center. Volunteer attorneys must not distribute business cards or otherwise solicit or accept clients from their work at the Self-Help Center. Volunteer attorneys must not refer litigants to any particular attorney for representation. All referrals for representation or other services must be to an office or entity listed on the Michigan Legal Help website.