Holding a stack of papers filled with legal jargon, Elaine Coleman walks up to a new self-help center in Anoka designed especially for people like her who want to represent themselves in court.
Coleman is one of about 60 people who have used the self-help center since it opened June 1. The free service aids a growing number of people who want to do it themselves but still need help navigating the law. It's the fourth self-help legal center in the state; the others are in Hennepin and Ramsey counties.
Located in the Anoka County courthouse, it is staffed Monday through Thursday, with phone help available on Friday, and serves residents living in the 10th Judicial District (Anoka, Chisago, Isanti, Kanabec, Pine, Sherburne, Washington and Wright counties).
The seed for the center was planted as officials saw more and more pro se litigants — people representing themselves in court — come to the county's law library for help.
A 2010 Star Tribune article highlighted the library's role in navigating pro se litigants to the right resources.
"I think initially the law library was startled by the great need out there and realized they couldn't do it all," Judge Bethany Fountain Lindberg said recently.
In 2013, the librarians asked the judge, who chaired the 10th Judicial District's self-help center steering committee, to assess the trend. The committee included a group of people who could "collaborate as a legal partner," including public defenders, attorneys and legal experts.
"We started meeting to say, 'Hey, we are seeing this huge uptick in people who represent themselves,' " Lindberg said. "'What are we going to do about with this flood of people and this changing trend?' "
The group researched how other districts in the state and across the country were responding to the trend. Hennepin and Ramsey counties have three walk-in self-help centers. In Hennepin County, they are located in the government center and the Family Justice Center. Ramsey County has a legal center for family court. In 2014, the three centers provided assistance to more than 51,000 people, according to a news release.
The 10th Judicial District is funding the self-help center in Anoka through its standard operating budget. The center has one staff person during this pilot phase, with hope that the program will be expanded if successful.
The center relieves the burden on the law librarians and court administration staff who often field questions, Lindberg said. "They spend a lot of time at the window, which removes them from their other duties," she said. Or if a litigant appears before court and isn't prepared, a judge's workload increases and clogs up the system.
During a recent weekday, a few people went to the window seeking help regarding family law and criminal expungement.
Coleman, 50, originally sought help at the law library, but visited the legal center to check her paperwork. In 2005, she was charged with wrongfully obtaining assistance — a felony. Ten years later, unable to find work, she wants to expunge her record.
"Now I know what I'm doing and what papers I need to fill out," Coleman said of the help she received from the center.
But staff at the center cannot provide legal advice or answer her most important question: Should she continue with the legal process to expunge her criminal record and spend about $300 in court fees?
"I've come all this way. Talked to so many different people. And I know they can't tell me what to do, but I'm going to leave it in God's hands," Coleman said.
Coleman filed her paperwork to expunge her criminal record. "Either I get a clean start or I lose $300. At least I tried."