The new legal aid: Do it yourself

  • Article by: DAVID CHANEN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 19, 2010 - 10:32 PM

In bad economic times, public law libraries boom with visitors needing legal advice. Do-it-yourself legal work has become the way, from bankruptcy filings to fighting an eviction.

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Dan Betland and Stephanie Lemma, both county residents, filled out court forms at the Anoka County Law Library. More than 12,000 people are expected to use the library this year.

Photo: Jerry Holt, Star Tribune

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Edward McComb wandered into the Anoka County law library, his initial step in trying to gain child visitation rights. He was greeted by longtime library director Gene Myers, who knows how to make the burdensome legal task feel like an information-filled walk in the park.

As he printed out a stack of forms, Myers guided the patron to a useful website and tackled question after question. The next visitor was already perched at Myers' desk.

McComb is typical of the growing masses using law libraries during these tough economic times, Myers said. Hiring an attorney isn't an option right now, so he will try to navigate the legal maze himself.

Myers expects more than 12,000 people to drop in this year, compared with 2,000 in 2001.

Unexpected financial woes have made pro se, or self-representation, the way in court, he said. Any given day brings somebody to the library looking to fight an eviction or expunge a criminal record, for example. Myers may also research a request about a civil or criminal procedure or guide an Internet search to review trial court records.

"The court system is an adversarial system," he said. "When you walk into our environment, we don't take sides. We don't care if you are a judge or private citizen. We are respectful and responsive to everybody."

Every county in the state has a public law library at its courthouse, although only metro area facilities and a couple of larger outstate counties have full-time staff.

Some libraries are nothing more than a room with a computer, while those in Hennepin and Ramsey counties occupy an entire courthouse floor. Most funding comes from court filing fees and ticket fines.

Myers and his associate Merry Conway have worked together for more than 20 years, and they've pretty much seen it all. More than 75 percent of their patrons come from the general public, and family law issues involving divorce, child custody, child support and adoption are the most common subjects.

In Hennepin County, ordinary citizens use the law library less often, tending to go to two walk-in self-help centers instead. While the law library is a key resource for the county attorney's office, law clerks and the many large downtown Minneapolis law firms, the two centers and their staffs handled 43,688 visitors last year.

Emotions come through

Sometimes, Myers said, people will break down and cry while telling their story. Occasionally somebody becomes so agitated a deputy is asked to escort the person from the building.

"I saw a person in the courthouse three or four months after I helped him," Myers said. "He told me he might have killed himself if I hadn't helped him that day."

Court clerks and judges routinely send litigants representing themselves to get library help. Anoka County Judge Lawrence Johnson, a member of the library board, recently suggested that a pro se litigant visit the library because he didn't understand the concept of a summons. If the litigant isn't prepared, a judge's workload increases and clogs up the system, said Anoka County Judge Michael Roith.

"I was surprised that the percentage of library use by attorneys was so low," Johnson said. "At one point our library was a fairly small room hidden in the courthouse and you had to be on the inside to know where it was. But we now have a much more open facility."

Myers hears many stories about people having to let their attorneys go because their cases haven't been resolved and they're out of money. Increases in court filing fees and fines have also created a financial hardship for many pro se users of the court system, he said. Many are filing fee-waiver requests for civil matters, he said.

Access to resources up

As the number of pro se litigants has bulged, the legal community has recognized the need to give the public more access to resources, said Susan Larson, coordinator of the state's county law library program. Several counties offer weekly or monthly seminars on a variety of pro se topics, and satellite self-help centers have been started in public libraries. There is also a "virtual" Minnesota Courts Self-Help Center online, with staff attorneys available to assist people in finding and understanding court forms, procedures, and resources in the court and community. Ramsey County has a law library blog and uses Twitter.

While pro se cases have increased statewide in recent years, Michele Des Rosier, St. Louis County's law librarian, said the economy doesn't seem to be driving the rise in her area. But that appears to be the exception. In Ramsey County, director Sara Galligan has answered more questions about judgment collection, unemployment, bankruptcy and landlord/tenant issues.

She also sees attorneys coming to the library to look up information on how to start their own firms because they can't find a job or they were laid off.

"Some law libraries are facing funding issues and have to cut back," said Judy Meadows, former president of the American Association of Law Libraries, who heads Montana's state law library.

"I could see how this could reach a crisis situation for the courts. If people are more prepared, it's better for everybody."

In the case of McComb, 27, he stopped by the Anoka library to figure out how to gain visitation rights after a DNA test indicated that he was the father of a baby girl. The baby's mother was making things difficult, he said, and he was distressed because he was raised to do the right thing. Myers patiently offered a sympathetic ear and printed out a stack of documents, informing him about their monthly family law clinics if he needed further guidance.

When McComb asked how he should act in court in response to a restraining order filed by the baby's mother, Myers told him library staff members aren't allowed to dispense legal advice. McComb was still very thankful for the 20 minutes Myers spent with him.

"The library won't be the be-all. It's a starting point," Myers said.

"It's empowering for most people. We are passionate about helping people, but we can't become their advocates."

David Chanen • 612-673-4465

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