Chief Judge says virtual court saves time and money
By: Heather Catallo
(WXYZ) — The COVID-19 pandemic brought so many unprecedented closures and changes, including to parts of the court system. Many of the courts in Michigan started reopening in late 2020 or 2021. But one very busy court is still largely closed to the public when it comes to filing important paperwork and that has some people upset.
Nobody really wants to go to probate court, but it’s the place you have to go in emergencies, such as after a loved one dies or when you need to make life or death decisions about a relative who becomes incapacitated.
Right now, the state’s busiest probate court is still restricting some access for the public.
Critics say the Wayne County Probate Court should fully reopen, but
the chief judge says operating mostly on Zoom is saving time and money.
He also says the old way of doing business left disabled and elderly
people stuck downtown for hours on end – and now he wants other courts
to follow their lead.
But Linda Peters says she nearly lost guardianship of her brother because of a paperwork mix up at the court that she couldn’t resolve in person.
“He is really vulnerable,” said Peters.
This mom from Woodhaven has been her brother’s legal guardian for 15 years. Peters says John has mental health challenges and a disability.
“I'm there. I pay his rent. I do everything for him,” said Peters.
Every year, Peters has renewed her guardianship of John without a problem. In November, she mailed her annual account to the Wayne County Probate Court – just like she does every year.
But Linda says later she got a notice in the mail that the court never received the records. So, she mailed the documents again. That didn’t seem to help either.
“The new thing that I got the other day says that my guardianship has been suspended,” said Peters.
Peters says she tried calling and emailing the Wayne County Probate Court, but nothing worked.
“All you get is a recording, and you can't leave a message. And the email I had was invalid, so I'm kind of stuck,” said Peters.
Because the court’s website states no in-person filings are accepted, Linda says she didn’t know what to do.
The court’s website also stated the court will “only accept pleadings and documents for filing Monday through Friday, 8:00am to 4:00pm...” and “all emails and faxes received outside of these filing hours will automatically be deleted.”
“We weren't deleting filings. We might be guilty of poor sentence structure,” said Wayne County Chief Probate Judge Freddie Burton Jr.
Judge Burton says he did not realize the probate court’s website said
they were deleting documents until the 7 Investigators pointed it out.
Burton says that language has now been removed.
“We wiped it out and we're simply saying 8 am to 4 pm. You can still mail it in, you can email it in, you can fax it in. We're going to get it,” said Judge Burton.
Judge Burton says Wayne County has received a record number of probate filings since the start of the pandemic. He says in 2022, the court received 103,000 filings and they only have 14 staffers available to handle that.
“It's like we were digging in quicksand, and we just kept sinking deeper and deeper. So, we had to finally make a change,” Judge Burton told 7 Investigator Heather Catallo.
Unlike the probate counters in Macomb County and Oakland County that fully reopened months ago, the lines are gone and the seats are empty in Wayne County.
“The other way didn't work for this court. We're the largest probate court in the state. We have minimum resources. This works,” said Judge Burton about the virtual courtrooms he’s established.
Burton says he’s keeping the court mostly virtual because it saves families and taxpayers time and money. Almost all hearings are now held on Zoom.
“You come downtown with an elderly parent. You come downtown with a person who is developmentally disabled. You come downtown with a person who has mental health issues that need to be addressed. They're dragged into this building to have a chance to sit outside for hours on end. That's not appropriate. That's not acceptable. And that's not what we want,” said Judge Burton.
Last week alone, the staff reported a COVID-19 outbreak, reducing staffing by half. The court sent this graphic to illustrate how a bout of illness can drastically impact their operational levels:
In response to complaints from families who say they can’t get through on the phone, Judge Burton tells us he recently asked staff attorneys to start taking and returning calls. He’s also asking staff to work overtime to keep up with the workload.
The judge says he’s also going to have a staff member sitting at the elevators on the 13th floor to help those who do come down to the court in person, and says emergencies can be handled on the spot.
Meanwhile, Linda Peters was finally able to get through on the phone, and her fiduciary powers for her brother’s guardianship have now been restored. But she says the whole experience made her realize, Wayne County needs to do a better job funding the court so they can have more staff to handle these life-altering cases.
“Wayne County taxes are high. Let's get some money to the courts so you can pay these clerks a little bit that have to do the mindful jobs of the paperwork like this to make sure that somebody doesn't lose their guardianship,” said Peters.
Again, Wayne County really wants all filings to be faxed, emailed or mailed, but the court does also have a drop box where you can leave paperwork on-site.
The chief judge
says if you don’t want your hearing to be on Zoom, you can always
request an in-person hearing and they will accommodate that.
Full Article & Source:
Frustrations grow as Michigan’s busiest probate court still largely closed to public