Court Watch

our campaign to change the way the courts "talk" to the public so that people know their rights, know how to exercise them, and know how to quickly get to where they need to go


The legal process should be designed from the perspective of the self-represented litigant, not the judges and lawyers. This means changing the design of courts and courtrooms, removing the barriers to entry and advocacy, simplifying legal processes and language... We can utilize principles of procedural justice and human-centric design to help people get to court, understand their rights, and better argue their case. The resulting reduced demand for court and legal resources can then be better allocated for those acute cases they truly need more attention and care.


WIN! Require courts to develop local landlord-tenant resource forms - UPDATE #housing

Back in 2017, the Michigan Supreme Court declined our request for a court rule to require each district court to develop its own summons, one responsive to its residents.

However, due to the pandemic, the Supreme Court adopted an interim landlord-tenant order that adopted provisions substantially similar to our request.

WIN! Advocate for citizens to be allowed to bring their cells into court #racialequity

Not being allowed to bring cell phones into courts presents a huge barrier to non-attorney's access to justice.

Particularly with respect to low-income and unrepresented clients, access to a cellphone in court can assist litigants with: (i) getting to and from court and subsequent appointments, (ii) gathering and presenting evidence, (iii) managing life’s logistics, especially when court runs longer than expected, and (iv) connecting to legal and non-legal resources, e.g. legal self-help websites and language translation apps.

So we submitted this petition signed by over 160 non-attorneys in support of a court rule amendment to allow cell phones. In January 2020, the Michigan Supreme Court adopted the amendment.


Study connection between college degree of probation officers and violation rates #criminaljustice

Research in criminology indicates positive influence of supportive, rehabilitative (vs punitive/public safety) demeanor and approach on completion of court supervision and lower recidivism. Our statistics in our Street Outreach Court Detroit and Functional Sentencing projects bear similar findings.

So we looked at data from 3 circuits courts and found that officers with psychology or social work backgrounds have lower probationer violation rates.

We are hoping this study prompts the Michigan Supreme Court and Department of Corrections to conduct a statewide study so that hiring policies going forward capitalize on the societal benefits of supportive, rehabilitative approaches to probation.


WIN! Update court forms to reflect the 2016 Ability to Pay court rule amendment #criminaljustice

Although the Michigan Supreme Court had amended its Court Rules in 2016 to require an ability to pay assessment before jailing someone for not paying fines and costs, none of the court-approved forms had been changed to advise defendants accordingly.

So we asked the Michigan Supreme Court to change its forms. They agreed with and implemented most of our recommendations.


WIN! Require courts to develop local landlord-tenant resource forms #housing

Landlord tenant cases move fast. Most often cases are resolved at the first appearance. The summons to tenants has resources, but they are not always locally relevant and is not given in an actionable format.

We asked the Michigan Supreme Court for a court rule to require each district court to develop its own summons, one responsive to its residents. We had substantial support from other advocates and district court judges.

Unfortunately, the SCAO declined to pursue our request, relying on its funding of Michigan Legal Help website to serve as the depository of information statewide, despite the fact that impoverished people often lack access to computers and the internet.


WIN! Advocate for a court rule to curb the practice of pay-or-stay sentencing #criminaljustice

Even though it was long-established constitutional law, Michigan district courts had been jailing folks who were too poor to pay their court fines. So we wrote our comment letter supporting the amendments and a petition from dozens of our clients and soup kitchen patrons. But we knew that that wasn't enough, because it couldn't truly capture the impact of this practice.

To center our clients' perspectives, our clients Dennis, Lesia, and Mecca up to Lansing with us to testify as to their personal experiences before pay-or-stay judges. Their testimony was powerful. It is must-see TV.