Do Good: CLSWM provides a pathway to justice for low-income people

According to the American Bar Association (ABA), our justice system is not meeting the legal needs of approximately 20 percent of low-income people nationwide. At least 80 percent of America’s poor end up representing themselves, or fail to respond to court requests. The result: Default judgments and other adverse consequences that can negatively affect countless lives.
Think those stereotypical jokes about lawyers being greedy and cutthroat are true? Au contraire: Since its inception, Community Legal Services of West Michigan's 37 volunteer attorneys have donated more than 500 hours of free legal assistance to people who cannot afford to hire an attorney. Do Good editor Victoria Mullen reports.
Since October 2012, Community Legal Services of West Michigan (CLSWM), has been doing something to change those statistics in our region. CLSWM is a volunteer-based nonprofit that provides pro bono legal services to low-income families who do not readily qualify for other existing legal services in Allegan, Ionia, Kent, Montcalm, Muskegon, and Ottawa counties.

“We handle mostly family law issues, but we also do criminal cases, contract reviews, some probate work, and we are a partner under the Eviction Diversion program in Kentwood,” says Dustie DeVille, founder and executive director of CLSWM.

Other legal services provided at CLSWM include custody cases, child support, spousal support, divorce, guardianship/conservatorship, landlord/tenant, parenting time, personal protection order (PPO), and others.

In the six-county area CLSWM serves, about 15.8 percent of the population—approximately 177,000 individuals—live below the poverty level. According to a 2009 report prepared by the Legal Services Corporation, fewer than 50 percent of individuals who seek assistance through other legal aid programs qualify for services.  

“I founded CLSWM to partner with courts, other legal services, and community organizations to help fill the gaps and provide equal access to the legal system for low-income and unrepresented people,” DeVille says. “The day after our organization’s launch at a pro bono fair, our phone rang off the hook. In our first year, we provided access to legal services for over 200 people and free legal representation to 60 families, either directly or in tandem with other law firms, volunteer attorneys, or other local organizations.”

Since its inception, CLSWM’s 37 volunteer attorneys have donated more than 500 hours of free legal assistance to people who cannot afford to hire an attorney. In a nutshell, CLSWM serves families who:
  • live at or below the 200% poverty level based on family size and income and;
  • receive public assistance or government benefits or participate in a qualifying community or agency program with another social service organization, including church-based programs (each program is reviewed and determined on a case-by-case basis) and;
  • do not qualify for any other type of legal-assistance program or services.
A graduate of Thomas M. Cooley Law School, DeVille began practicing law in 1999. After relocating from West Michigan to Portland, Oregon, she specialized in medical malpractice but soon became disillusioned with the justice system.

“I felt I wasn’t really making a difference in people’s lives,” says DeVille, “so I shifted my career to the nonprofit realm and began working as a volunteer for United Way in Portland.” She soon became the organization’s developmental director and was responsible for raising $3.5 million toward the annual campaign goal of $21 million.

DeVille returned to Michigan in 2002 to oversee the daily operations of her family business, Exams Express, Inc. She returned to the practice of law in 2007, working as an associate attorney with the Byrne Law Office in Fremont, Michigan.

In 2008, DeVille set up her own law firm, Voices for Hope, where she practiced criminal law, family law, immigration law, and real estate law. During the course of volunteering at free legal clinics in Kent County, she became aware of a need for more complex legal services.

“I discovered that many low-income individuals did not qualify for existing services,” says DeVille. “People had to navigate the legal system on their own or with very little direction. They fell through the cracks. It was clear to me that there was a need for a community-based legal advocate to fill the gap. We are a one-stop shop. We can help people who are homeless and do not have a phone to make calls, and we are reaching a population we couldn’t reach before.”

CLSWM also is involved in community programs, such as the Eviction Diversion Pilot Program with the 62-B District Court in Kentwood. The program provides low- and moderate-income families with eviction prevention assistance.

“It’s a proactive way of helping people avoid evictions,” says DeVille. “It also helps prevent homelessness and stabilize housing.”

CLSWM also participates with the recently launched Community Outreach Court (see Rapid Growth Media article), a collaborative effort between the 61st District Court, Cooley Law School, and social services providers. The program helps disenfranchised folks overcome unresolved, non-violent misdemeanors and/or civil legal challenges that keep them from moving forward with their lives.

The organization does not duplicate services offered by other legal assistant programs. “If we think or know another service provider will be able to assist someone, we will refer them to that organization for a screening of their services,” DeVille says. “And if an individual finds that services are unavailable at the referred service provider, they may contact us again.”

Get involved:
- Make a donation.
- Volunteer. CLS is looking for volunteer attorneys to serve in Allegan, Ionia, Kent, Montcalm, Muskegon, and Ottawa counties.

Images by Adam Bird.
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