She’s called “the expungement queen” and with good reason – in 2018, Julie Kelly, one of only two full-time legal services staff at the Stearns County Self-Help Center, assisted with over 350 criminal expungements. Kelly, a paralegal, and her colleague, attorney Autumn DeCosta, both of Central Minnesota Legal Services (CMLS) – St. Cloud are the team behind a vital collaboration between CMLS and the Stearns County Law Library Board of Directors. Created to help pro se litigants and located in the Stearns County Courthouse, the self-help program had over 7,200 in-person and telephone/email contacts with self-represented litigants on 27 common legal issues in 2018 alone.
The CMLS Self-Help Center is open from 8:00 a.m. – 4:00 p.m. Monday through Friday, and assistance is provided on a first come, first served basis. This can mean long wait times, but no one is turned away (though sometimes walk-in clients will leave and return the next day). Kelly and DeCosta provide court forms assistance, service, and procedural instructions for self -represented litigants already involved in a civil court action or looking to start one. They help with cases involving OFP, HRO, dissolution, custody, child support, guardianship and conciliation, to name just a few. They do not give legal advice but do refer clients to advice clinics or Central Minnesota Legal Services itself for full representation, as needed.
Dan Morris, CMLS managing attorney and supervisor of the program said, “I am singularly impressed with the quantity of predominately low-income self-represented litigants that Julie and Autumn serve on a daily basis, and how they are still able to provide excellent assistance to all in greater central Minnesota on such an impressive range of legal topics. We are proud to partner with the Stearns County Law Library Board in providing this indispensable service to pro se litigants and the county district courts.”
Since the program began in 2006, nearly 60,000 self-represented litigants have been served, and in 2018, they came from 40 Minnesota counties, mainly Stearns, Benton, Sherburne, Morrison, Wright, Hennepin, and Kandiyohi. In recognition of the program, its improvements to the legal and procedural standards of pro se filings, and its positive impact on the efficiency of the court process, the Benton and Stearns County District Courts issued court orders requiring that it review all pro-se dissolution cases before they are filed.