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.

CMLS and Hennepin County Establish Full-time Position at Domestic Abuse Service Center

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For the past year, lawyers from Central Minnesota Regional Legal Services (CMLS) have provided free legal advice and representation to those seeking orders for protection on three days each week at the Hennepin County Family Justice Center. By meeting with domestic violence victims on the day of their court hearing, CMLS attorneys are able to provide vital support that can make a profound difference.

Beginning in March, funding for a full-time attorney position will allow CMLS and the county attorney’s office to provide wrap-around services to victims and their families on an expanded basis from the current project.  With a lawyer based in the Domestic Abuse Service Center, much more time can be spent at the beginning of the legal process, which according to Lilo Schluender, supervising attorney with CMLS, “…can have a huge impact on whether a victim is going to be believed and get the protection they need.”

CMLS Attorney to be Honored at MJF’s Annual Awards Celebration November 7

Elizabeth F. Sauer

Elizabeth F. Sauer

This Wednesday, November 7, marks Minnesota Justice Foundation’s Annual Awards Celebration. Every year since 1991, MJF has honored the work of public interest attorneys, private pro bono attorneys, advocates, and law students whose commitment to service shines as a beacon of hope and embodies the very best of our profession.

This year, MJF’s award for Outstanding Service by a Direct Legal Services provider will go to Elizabeth F. Sauer, supervising attorney at Central Minnesota Regional Legal Services (CMLS).

Sauer has been the housing supervising attorney at CMLS since May 2017, with over seven years of prior service as a staff attorney. While she focuses on housing law, her caseload also includes family law cases, predominantly Orders for Protection. Her advocacy skills and legal knowledge exceed expectations for her seniority at CMLS, and she handles hundreds of housing cases on an annual basis. Countless tenants in Hennepin and Anoka counties have avoided homelessness because of Sauer’s outstanding advocacy.

Sauer has become an expert in subsidized housing law, and CMLS attorneys who have cases involving vouchers, as well as attorneys from other legal aid programs, regularly consult with her on their own cases. She mentors CMLS attorneys in all the program’s offices, and provides counsel to other attorneys in Minnesota, thereby improving advocacy for clients statewide.

Sauer has represented over a thousand clients during her career, and through her mentoring of others, has impacted hundreds more cases. She is always on the look-out for new ways to apply the law to ensure that clients remain housed, and that their housing is in good repair.  Her work recognizes the essential role that housing plays in a client’s success in all areas of life. 

MJF’s 2018 award winners also include Timothy McLarnan of McLarnan & Skatvold – Moorhead, recipient of the Private Practice Award; Imani Jaafar of the Minneapolis Department of Civil Rights, recipient of the Advocate Award; and law students Royzetta Evans of Mitchell Hamline School of Law, Dr. Susan Craig, M. D. of the University of Minnesota Law School, and Jonathan Snyder of the University of St. Thomas School of Law.

There’s still time to get a ticket to the Annual Awards Celebration. Click here for more information and to reserve your ticket.

Innovations for Clients: LOON Takes Flight

Legal Organizations Online Network: LOON

Legal Organizations Online Network: LOON

By Betsy Parrell, Supervising Attorney

Starting today, staff from sixteen Minnesota legal services organizations are working toward better coordination and referrals through access to a new online tool: LOON (Legal Organizations Online Network).

As an integral part of the LawHelpMN.org rebuild project, LOON is a password-protected, online database developed to house up-to-date information about legal services available across Minnesota.  Service listings in the database include information about case types and priorities, case acceptance guidelines, clinics, and eligibility criteria. 

LOON aims to improve client referrals by enabling legal services providers to make more accurate referrals amongst each other through access to detailed, real-time data. LOON will also power the referral information that will be available to everyone on the new LawHelpMN.org, once launched.  In addition, because of LOON, staff at individual organizations no longer need to maintain and update their own legal services referral information, which can easily fall out-of-date.  

The organizations currently participating in LOON are:

  • Anishinabe Legal Services

  • Central Minnesota Legal Services

  • Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota

  • Judicare of Anoka County

  • Legal Aid Service of Northeastern Minnesota

  • Legal Assistance of Dakota County

  • Legal Assistance of Olmsted County

  • Legal Rights Center

  • Legal Services of Northwest Minnesota, Inc.

  • Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid

  • Southern Minnesota Regional Legal Services

  • Standpoint

  • The Advocates for Human Rights

  • Tubman

  • Volunteer Attorney Program

  • Volunteer Lawyers Network

These sixteen organizations have password access to LOON, and the ability to update and maintain their own service listings.  For organizations that do not currently have password access such as specialty legal service providers, law libraries, court-based self-help services, bar association referral programs, and community mediation State Support will gradually add their services to LOON and coordinate with them to maintain and update their listings.

State Support is grateful for the expertise shared by staff members of the sixteen participating organizations. Their feedback was used to guide the development of LOON’s technical infrastructure and user interface. Staff from these organizations also worked diligently to update and verify the accuracy of their listings in anticipation of LOON’s launch today. Additionally, over 100 individuals at these organizations registered for trainings offered by State Support on how to search service listings, in order to be prepared to use LOON effectively to make referrals.

Continued coordination and communication will be critical to LOON’s success. Staff members from the participating organizations will need to communicate with each other, and with State Support, to ensure that the accuracy and quality of information in LOON, and the tool itself, can continue to improve. Working together, we can make LOON a robust, reliable tool that helps all of us better serve client needs across the legal services delivery system.