Need a legal document? You can find it yourself

  • Article by: TIM HARLOW
  • Star Tribune
  • February 26, 2011 - 9:13 PM

Navigating the legal system can be a daunting task, especially for the uninitiated. And if lawyers are involved, it can be an expensive proposition.

With the aid of a $25,000 federal technology grant, the Washington County Law Library is trying to make that process a bit less mysterious by launching a free series of seminars designed to give people hands-on experience with accessing forms electronically and finding other resources for their legal needs.

"The whole idea is that this information is available on line," said law librarian Brian Huffman. "A majority of what I see is family law issues in which people try to represent themselves in court. They don't know how to do the form or anything about the procedure, and they are floundering."

It's not just those involved in divorce or child custody cases who can benefit from the "Librarians Lending a Hand: Teaching the Public How to Find and Use Legal Resources" program, Huffman said. Seminars that will be taught by law librarians and attorneys at public libraries throughout Washington County will cover everything from how to file a claim in conciliation court and sue for breach of contract to issues regarding tenant-landlord rights and foreclosure. They are set to begin early next month.

The law library used the grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services to buy 10 laptop computers that seminar participants can use to access court records, papers, documents and other information pertaining to litigation. Participants can also bring their own computers, Huffman said.

In each session, the keynote speaker will give a general overview of the topic, then spend time giving one-on-one instruction.

Each seminar will be limited to about 20 people, but they will be offered multiple times over the next 12 months. The seminars designed to give the average citizen "access to justice" will be open to anybody who wishes to represent themselves in court due to financial constraints or other reasons. Participants don't have to live in Washington County to attend, Huffman said.

A schedule will be posted on the law library's web site at when it's finalized. To publicize the seminars, brochures will be printed up and distributed at area nonprofits that often give referrals to clients and to patrons at area libraries.

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.

Reference librarians have always been available to help citizens with legal issues at the Washington County Law Library. But the facility inside the Washington County Courthouse is open only 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. weekdays. By teaming up with the county library system, the public will have access to training after hours and can get it in an environment that may not be as intimidating as going to a government building.

"People feel more comfortable in a library; it's like apple pie and mom," Huffman said. The whole idea is "to introduce people to the judicial system and make it less mysterious."

Tim Harlow • 651-735-1824

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