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Help for pro se litigants statewide may be on way

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

  • By: Michelle Lore
  • Organization: Minnesota Lawyer
  • Source: Minnesota > ProJusticeMN.org

This article was published in Minnesota Lawyer - www.minnlawyer.com.

If the judiciary gets its way this budget cycle, each of the state's 87 courthouses will be equipped with a workstation where unrepresented litigants can go online or make a call to get aid.

The Minnesota court system is asking the Legislature for more than $660,000 to fund a pro se virtual self-help program.

The request is part of the judicial branch's bid for $66 million in added funding for the next biennium. Part of that, $9 million, is expected to go toward funding the courts' "strategic initiatives," which include the online pro se program and a quality assurance program that will allow the court to improve its ability to measure its own performance. Most of the $9 million, however, will go toward laying the groundwork for a statewide drug court.

Under the proposed virtual pro se program, each of the state's 87 courthouses will be equipped with a workstation where unrepresented litigants can go online to obtain information about court procedures and particular areas of the law, as well as print relevant forms and instructions. They will also be given telephone access to staff members in Hennepin County who will be able to answer their questions.

Supporters of the online pro se program are confident that it will benefit not only unrepresented parties, but attorneys, judges and the justice system as a whole.

"I think that when self-represented people have had access to self-help services, they have done a better job of preparing forms and necessary motions," said Hennepin County District Court Chief Judge Lucy Wieland. "It benefits everybody in the system."

Organizers of the project specifically point out that it benefits lawyers to face unrepresented parties who have at least some understanding of court procedures and requirements.

"It's easier to go against a pro se party with some education and knowledge of the system," said Susan Ledray, Hennepin County's Pro Se Services Coordinator. "It also helps level the playing field and takes some pressure off the judge in the courtroom."

Walk-ins welcome

The idea for the online pro se project grew out of the Self-Help Center that was created in Hennepin County a decade ago.

The center has served thousands of pro se litigants every year - 33,000 last year alone, according to Ledray.

"It's been hugely successful," said Wieland, adding that the walk-in center has made a concerted effort to provide services to non-English speaking people, including offering bilingual forms and having a bilingual staff that helps people navigate the court system.

Ledray said that while it would be ideal to set up a similar self-help center in every county, it's not practical. Some county courthouses have only a few staff people and simply could not support a walk-in facility, she said.

Because widespread walk-in centers aren't feasible and because some people are not able to get to the center during office hours, organizers of the Hennepin County program began building up its Web presence. "The virtual concept will reach more people," Ledray noted.

Today, a great deal of information and a variety of legal forms are available online to assist litigants who decide to proceed pro se in Minnesota courts. While the Web site content is added by Hennepin County staff, the information contained on the site is applicable statewide.

Ledray explained that information on the site is posted by topic and primarily includes the areas that are addressed most frequently by pro se litigants. The site also contains links to forms, relevant statutes and rules and additional information litigants may require as they navigate their way through the system.

"It's limited in scope to issues people try to self-represent on in District Court," said Ledray. "It's not intended to contain legal information on everything."

A virtual plan

The judicial branch's desire to improve and expand the virtual self-help service is an attempt to assist pro se litigants on a statewide basis.

"We are asking the Legislature for money to hire additional staff to be a part of a call center so people using the site can call and get assistance," said Ledray. "The telephone is an essential part of this."

Specifically, the request to the Legislature encompasses funding for two people to staff the phone line for the first year and for two additional staff members the second year. It also includes the cost of the software to manage the call center, Ledray explained.

The plan is to roll out the availability of the call center slowly, perhaps starting with one district and then gradually moving on to the others, said Ledray. It will be limited initially so that organizers can get a better handle on the type of questions received and determine the skill level necessary to take calls, she explained.

Organizers of the online project are currently looking for furniture and getting bids to set up work stations in each of the state's 87 counties. All calls from the work stations will go directly to the call center in Hennepin County, which has volunteered to run the program.

The ultimate goal of the online service is to assist all Minnesotans in gaining access to the court system, especially low-income persons who otherwise might not pursue legitimate claims.

"It's about facilitating access to justice for individuals who can't afford attorneys," said Wieland.

Ledray agreed. "If people have a legitimate need then we should be helping them get through the court system," she said. "We do see people that never would get to court if they didn't have assistance."

Ledray noted that staff members also try to convince people to obtain legal representation in matters where they think it's necessary. Moreover, if people don't have a legitimate need to be in the court system at all, staff may be able to convince them not to proceed, or they may be able to divert them to a different avenue for resolution of their issue, Ledray said.

"The goal of any self-help service is to improve access to the court system for the public, to help courts operate efficiently and to obtain fair outcomes for people," said Ledray.

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