At the Dakota County Courthouse in Hastings, law library manager Liz Reppe regularly pulls out thick reference books for criminal defendants trying to represent themselves without an attorney.

But the texts and their terminology can be daunting for the average person.

"A lot of times, I'll pull them out and it's too overwhelming for people to read them," Reppe said.

Many people have little idea what many legal terms mean, let alone what the rules are in court. Still, those who don't qualify for a public defender often head to court on their own. Once there, they slow down proceedings as judges try to answer questions and steer them along on tight schedules in the crowded dockets. At the same time, the pro-se defendants (those representing themselves) lose the benefit of having a calm and rational representative during some of the most emotionally tough times they'll ever undergo, she said.

So Reppe recently organized a meeting for attorneys and judges to discuss whether Dakota County should form a panel of criminal defense lawyers who'll give free advice and represent clients at reduced rates.

Among eight attorneys and a judge who attended was Shawn Betts of Maplewood, who coordinates a similar effort of five attorneys in Washington County. He also works with a nonprofit service offering such legal help to about 200 people a year in Ramsey County. Betts said the public's need for more affordable attorneys is growing because there are fewer public defenders and because of the tight economy.

"You are seeing more and more people who have lost their jobs or are having financial problems and can't afford the rates most attorneys charge," he said.

Reduced rates

Under a proposal, attorneys in the Dakota County program would take turns attending arraignments. Before court starts, they would announce that a defense attorney, other than the public defender, was on hand to answer questions and try to settle cases on the spot. For those whose cases aren't resolved, and who have limited resources, the attorneys will offer reduced rates. In other metro counties, it's roughly one-third to one-half of the typical cost, Betts said.

Reppe is an attorney, too, but she and other county employees cannot give out legal advice, only forms and law texts. She said desperate people often will go window to window, looking for advice that can't be given by anyone in the courthouse.

"The bottom line is that the need is out there," she said. "And there definitely will be more and more of a need with people losing their jobs and their income. It's just a question of how to implement it in the right way."

Among considerations, she said, are which offenses would be represented, what fees would be set, how people would qualify, and how attorneys would be selected.

From his bench, Dakota County Chief Judge Edward Lynch sees unrepresented defendants. He and other judges try to accommodate them by explaining what's going on and answering questions.

A proceeding where someone is pro se, the judges estimates, can take 25 to 50 percent longer than when both sides are represented.

The new program could result in fewer people needing services of the overwhelmed public defender because they're able to retain a more affordable attorney during tough economic times, Lynch said.

"I just think that overall, there are more people who are struggling," he said. "They may be struggling, but they may not qualify for the services of the public defender because they still do have some income. This would provide a resource for them that's presently not available in Dakota County."

Lynch said the court would not sponsor the program, or screen or supervise attorneys.

Joy Powell • 952-882-9017