Southern Minnesota Regional Legal Services Celebrates 110th Anniversary

Southern Minnesota Regional Legal Services (SMRLS) is excited to announce its 110th anniversary this year. SMRLS has experienced incredible growth since its humble beginnings in 1909. In the early days, SMRLS (then known as Legal Assistance of Ramsey County) typically only handled family law, social security, and landlord-tenant cases for clients in Ramsey County. Today, SMRLS is the largest provider of legal aid in Minnesota, closing more than 9,000 cases annually and serving an additional twenty thousand low-income residents through community outreach and training opportunities.

Former executive director Bruce Beneke has seen many changes In his four decades with SMRLS, but many important things have remained consistent.

“I’m most proud of the people who’ve been a part of SMRLS,” Bruce says. “The courage and strength of our clients; the dedication, compassion and outstanding work of our staff, board, pro bono, and Campaign lawyers; and the critical support of bar, judicial, corporate, community, legislative and local public and private funding leaders have, together, created a wonderful equal justice village and brought hope, empowerment and opportunity to persons in great need.”

SMRLS is commemorating this milestone anniversary by sharing the memories of some of SMRLS' longest-serving volunteers and staff on its website. Stories will be posted throughout the year at smrls.org/anniversary. Supporters and community partners are encouraged to visit the page each month to learn about SMRLS’ history, as told by the people who know it best. If you wish to share your story, please send an email to cla@smrls.org.

In addition, SMRLS’ celebration of “110 Years of Providing Access to Justice” will take on a festive note at its June 6th fundraiser Social Justice Uncorked. Tickets are available here.

Housing Court Project Study Shows How Legal Help Can Prevent Homelessness

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The cover story in this month’s Bench and Bar of Minnesota is proof positive that the Housing Court Project in Hennepin County is preventing homelessness and family instability on a regular basis. The article, authored by Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid’s Luke Grundman, along with project colleagues Muria Kruger of Volunteer Lawyers Network and Tom Tinkham former Dorsey and Whitney trial partner, describes the project and a recent study examining its effectiveness.

For the past 18 years, Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid (MMLA) and Volunteer Lawyers Network (VLN) have maintained a legal clinic at the Hennepin County Courthouse offering eviction advice and full representation, as well as help negotiating settlements and preparing expungement petitions. Recently, the city of Minneapolis, Hennepin County, and the Pohlad Family Foundation have provided significant financial support to bolster this vital court project. The clinic is staffed by 11 attorneys from MMLA, and in 2017 alone, nearly 150 volunteer attorneys from VLN provided 1,400 hours of legal service.

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The study on the project’s impact compared results for tenants who were unrepresented to those who received limited advice or help and then to those who received full representation. Eleven random court calendar days were selected for review. Results demonstrated that those represented in eviction proceedings have better outcomes and those fully represented have even more positive outcomes. Read more in Bench and Bar of Minnesota.

Out and About with State Support: Innovations in Technology Conference

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State Support’s Supervising Attorney, Betsy Parrell, and Legal Technology Projects Manager, Jenny Singleton, recently attended the Legal Services Corporation’s Innovations in Technology Conference in New Orleans, LA. The conference is a chance to learn about cutting edge technology used by legal services organizations throughout the country and even abroad! Conference sessions covered topics such as Artificial Intelligence, text message integration, and data privacy and security.

Singleton also presented on a panel titled, Open Referral in Action: New Solutions for the Legal Service Directory Problem, explaining how State Support leveraged the Open Referral data standard in its recent work redesigning LawHelpMN and developing LOON, the Legal Organizations Online Network. To read more about how LawHelpMN and LOON use Open Referral, see Singleton’s recent Open Referral blog post.

Stearns County Self-Help Center – A Statewide Oasis for Self-Represented Litigants

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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.