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Self-help focus of Law Day

Becky Vargo • May 1, 2019 at 9:00 AM

Mock trials, educational events and dinners for attorneys constitute Law Day activities across Michigan today (May 1).

But making legal proceedings easier for residents to navigate is what Ottawa County’s Legal Self-Help Director Sheri Lankheet wants to promote on this special day.

Lankheet has been the director of the center since its inception in 2010 that coincided with the completion of the new Ottawa County Courthouse in Grand Haven. Since then, she has worked to make legal proceedings easier to follow and more understandable to people — most of whom tell her, “I’ve never done this before.”

“We realize that,” Lankheet said. “That’s why we broke the packets into different steps, so it’s not so overwhelming.”

The Legal Self-Help Center is located on the second floor of the courthouse. It provides direction for people working through situations such as divorce, custody, support, small claims or landlord/tenant issues.

“We do not give legal advice,” Lankheet said. “We hand out forms, explain the process and guide people to additional resources.”

One of those resources is the public law library, also on the second floor but at the opposite end of the hallway.

The Ottawa County Circuit Court was originally required to maintain a law library, but with internet access, that mandate is no longer in place, Lankheet said. So, the small room — which also has computers for record searching and e-filing — is primarily an extension of the Legal Self-Help Center.

Most of the forms needed for domestic issues — such as divorce, child custody and child support — can be found in the Legal Self-Help office. Many other topics are covered in the law library. While the books must remain in the library, there are many pamphlets and booklets that people can take with them.

“It’s a great place to stop in while waiting for other things to happen and see if there is any information they need,” Lankheet said of the library.

There are many books on the shelves that are for “non-lawyers,” Lankheet said. These include books on bankruptcy, mediation, military and veterans, consumer protection, and landlord/tenant issues. An entire book is devoted to dogs, with chapters on landlords, veterinarians, traveling, assistance dogs, providing for pets, dog bites, and if a dog is injured or killed. 

Just down the hall, the center’s longest-serving volunteer, Nancy Collins, assembles divorce packets.

“(Lankheet) has set it up so that it is so user-friendly and inexpensive,” Collins said of the divorce packet. “The instructions are so clear.”

Collins pointed out the color-coding for the forms. For instance, anything to do with divorce was on pink paper. You can go to the rotating spindle in the hallway and grab what you need, although there is a per-copy charge. Most two-page forms cost $1.

The divorce packet is $20, but it’s full of forms divided into sections so you don’t become overwhelmed, Lankheet said. You fill out the first section and take care of that part of business before moving on to the next section. 

Anytime anyone needs help, they can call, ask a question online, or go to the center and ask in person. 

Lankheet said they are creating an update of the Legal Self-Help website that will include more links to forms and resources. She said they are trying to do as much as they can to help people who are not able to get to the center during business hours.

Lankheet said there is now a Self-Help Center at the Holland courthouse, but they need volunteers to train so it can be staffed. Anyone interested in volunteering can sign up on the Legal Self-Help Center website. They must observe others at work before deciding whether or not to do the training to work at the center. All volunteers undergo a background check.

Lankheet said the center helps an average of 300-350 people each month. In 2018, the center helped a total of 4,500 people. Those numbers come from anyone who was been helped in person, through the online “submit a question” or over the phone. 

For more information on the Legal Self-Help Center, visit miottawa.org/Courts/Legal.

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