A new clinic is coming to St. Paul's Summit Avenue. But this clinic will be treating economic, rather than medical maladies.
The new Law Library Pro Se Clinic is sponsored by William Mitchell College of Law and aimed at struggling do-it-yourselfers who are trying to navigate the legal maze of the court system without an attorney. The clinic is scheduled to open in September.
"This economy is forcing more people to represent themselves. It's an interesting trend," said Steve Linders, the law school's assistant marketing director. "We have a public law library and we are seeing a significant increase in the number of people coming in because they are going pro se when they are go to court, especially family court."
Men have come in who wish to handle their own divorces. Mothers and fathers have used the library to collect legal facts for custody battles. With layoffs and cuts to pay and health insurance, many citizens find they can't afford an attorney, so they struggle on to court alone. While the law guarantees criminal defendants an attorney at no charge, civil litigants are on their own.
Jim Hilbert, executive director of William Mitchell's Center for Negotiation and Justice, said the increase in people going to court alone is "astounding."
"The increase has been particularly large in family court cases, which [are] around a third of all cases in state courts. Hennepin County alone told me that approximately 70 percent of the filings in the district's family court are from pro se litigants ... [so] the majority of people in family court do not have lawyers," he said.
To help, William Mitchell will be the first law school in the state with a clinic designed to help the pro se litigant, a Latin term meaning "for self" or someone who represents themselves in court. The legal clinic, which opens on a pilot basis Sept. 12, will be held in the school's Warren Burger Law Library on Saturdays from 2 to 4 p.m. It will run until Nov. 28 and then reopen for good at a later date. Because the library clinic will be open on weekends, when other self-help centers are not, it's expected to be popular with weekday workers.
The clinic will be staffed by volunteer law students and reference librarians who will conduct intake assessments, help patrons find and fill out legal forms, brief on-site attorneys about individual cases and then assign each person to an attorney for a 30-minute advice session.
Courtroom can be daunting
The clinic will help litigants representing themselves in divorce, child custody and other family law cases, and teach them how to expunge their criminal records. It will not represent clients or address housing or tenants rights cases, but it will offer legal consultations on family law and other matters.
Without expertise, going to court can seem daunting, said Sarah McBroom, the William Mitchell alumna who conceived the idea for the pro se clinic three years ago after doing volunteer work at a temporary clinic in Mankato.
Do-it-yourselfers "who come to the library are overwhelmed by statutes and law books,'' McBroom said. "But there are tons of resources out there for them. So we will nudge them in the right direction."
It can be onerous for someone to fill out these legal forms, McBroom said, noting that divorce forms are about 30 pages long.
"You have to explain all of your assets and have to make factual findings and have a notary. People have to list everything they own because they potentially are splitting all their assets," she said.
Fees may be waived
For most divorces, "there is a filing fee that is 200-plus dollars,'' she said. "We can show them how to get that fee waived. ... There are things like that [which] are easy ... but people don't know about them. This center should help."
The law school joins a growing number of groups and centers in Minnesota that help self-represented litigants. Most counties offer some form of service, whether it's self-help websites, law library "pro se facilitators" or clinics open to the public one to four days a month.
Better-known assistance comes from the Legal Aid Society; Minnesota Volunteer Lawyers Network; the Hennepin County Self Help Center; the Ramsey County Family Court Self Help Service Center; clinics run by the Minnesota Justice Foundation and YouthLink, a homeless-youth advocacy group that uses pro bono attorneys. The Minnesota Court Self Help Center offers help online and by telephone.
'There's a huge need'
As the recession wears on, these resources are being strained.
"There's a huge need that Legal Aid cannot meet," said Sara Sommarstrom, program director of the Minnesota Justice Foundation, which trains law students and attorneys to offer pro bono legal assistance. It is "just staggering as to the number of people who qualify financially for free legal aid who are not getting served. It's disturbing."
Not just a metro issue
Melissa Giernoth, a staff attorney with the Minnesota Courts Self Help Center, agreed that the need is great and growing.
"Yes, there are more people filing [lawsuits] in Hennepin County without attorneys, and I would imagine that is statewide, too. I just cannot tell you the exact percentage increase," Giernoth said.
Child support and bills
Two of the most-frequent types of cases are child support motions and bill collections. "People who are losing their jobs are needing to change or suspend their child support payments,'' Giernoth said.
As for bill collections, "Some [people] already have a judgment and are just trying to collect on a bill. Some mom-and-pop smaller businesses are needing to collect on bills so they can pay their own bills. And they are going through conciliation court without an attorney," Giernoth said.
Hennepin County's center also has seen lots of laid-off people with questions about employment law, said staff attorney Debra Swaden .
At William Mitchell's clinic, "The dream would be to help a dozen people a week," McBroom said.
Adam Pabarcus, the second-year William Mitchell student who co-chairs the pro se clinic project, said the clinic's attorneys will not represent litigants, but will be on hand to advise clients on the best way to present their case in civil court, Pabarcus said.
After two years of planning, "We're excited,'' he said. "We can't wait to get it going."
Dee DePass • 612-673-7725