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Minnesota courts offer tool for people representing themselves

Minnesota's Judicial Branch is trying to make sure that he who represents himself in court has a tool for his client.

The state is installing self-help workstations in 57 counties, including Becker, Clay, Mahnomen, Norman, Otter Tail and Polk.

The workstations consist of a computer, printer and a phone connected to a call center.

The computers provide access to a "Virtual Self-Help Center" on the judicial Branch's Web site,

The site contains legal information, court forms, lawyer referral resources, tutorials and videos on legal actions such as divorce, child support, child custody, landlord-tenant disputes and car title issues.

Minnesota's courts have recently seen a rising number of self-represented parties, said Susan Ledray, a Hennepin County court official who served as team leader in developing the self-help project.

"We were experiencing a number of problems where people weren't doing things right, so you end up having to dismiss cases and reschedule cases, and it's very inefficient," she said.

The project, part of the Judicial Branch's strategic plan to expand court access for pro se litigants, aims to provide a higher level of assistance beyond what court clerks are able to provide, Ledray said.

The phone automatically connects to a Minneapolis call center staffed by attorneys who answer general questions about court forms, procedures and legal resources.

Because the lawyers are court employees, they can't give legal advice or represent the callers.

"But it's easier for people with law training to answer the questions," Ledray said.

Users also may log on to the Virtual Self-Help Center from home. The call center is accessible only from the courthouse phone.

Phone calls are answered from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, except for legal holidays. Bilingual staffers are available to provide services in Spanish.

A handful of people have been referred to the workstation in the basement law library of the Clay County Courthouse, said Deputy Court Administrator Sandra Nelson. She hopes it will help answer questions that court clerks now field from pro se litigants.

"We do get a lot of those," she said. "Our basic answer is, 'We aren't attorneys, and we can't give legal advice.' "

Ledray said many people who believe they can't afford an attorney feel there is no other choice but to represent themselves, but there are alternatives.

"One thing we can do is refer people to free attorneys if they in fact qualify as low-income," she said.

Eventually, the state hopes to have self-help workstations in all 87 counties, she said.

The project is funded by the state court system and an $82,500 grant from the State Justice Institute.