One of the results of the bad economy is that fewer people can afford lawyers, making Minnesota's virtual self-help program an attractive option for the rising number of people representing themselves in court.
People charged with a crime have the right to an attorney to represent them for free if you cannot afford one, but that's not the case if you are involved in a civil matter, such as filing a lawsuit against your landlord or filing for divorce. Nationally, more than 1 out of every 4 civil cases is filed by a person without an attorney.
Unlike many other states, Minnesota has a statewide virtual Self-Help Center that has more than 400 court forms online. If you have problems filling them out, you can phone the call center, which connects you to a room on the 12th floor of the Hennepin County Government Center. There, three attorneys answer calls.
The self-help center is part of the Minnesota court system, and as a result, the lawyers who work there must stay neutral and cannot give legal advice. They won't represent you in court. They won't handle the case for you. They won't research the law for you. What they can do is help you determine which court form is the correct one for the situation, how to work through the form, and what steps you need to take to get the case in front of a judge.
Self Help Director Susan LeDray says another major job of the center is to help people understand when their cases are too complicated for them to realistically handle on their own.
"For example if you want to sue someone for employment discrimination, we don't have a form for that because what you sue for and how you do it is going to be very specific to your facts," she said. "We can't give you a check-off-the-box or fill-in-the-blank form for something like that."
Minnesota's court system didn't have numbers available on the percentage of people representing themselves in the state's courts. But, the statewide self-help center said that between June of 2008 and June of this year, call volume increased on average 15 percent each month. In the past month, the number of calls has risen by nearly 40 percent. As a result, the center estimates that 20 to 25 callers a day don't get through.
The advent of self-help centers has signaled a change in court philosophy. It used to be that many judges viewed people who represent themselves in court, or "pro se" filers, as problems, often fearing they would file complaints against the judge. Hennepin County Family Court Judge Kevin Burke, who's traveled around the country speaking on the issue, says most judges in Minnesota no longer view pro se filers as problems but as people who've made understandable choices.
"They don't have access to legal aid or they don't want to take their kids' college education and spend it on a lawyer's kids' education when they're going through a divorce," he said. "So that our responsibility as judges is to provide access to justice to people who are represented by attorneys and not represented by attorneys."
One researcher says court self-help centers are part of a trend in some states to be more customer-service oriented, particularly in the age of budget cuts. Richard Zorza coordinates the Self-Represented Litigation Network, which is a group of organizations, ranging from the conference of chief justices to legal aid, that studies how the public uses the courts.
"I think what you're going to see is an understanding that improving access and improving efficiency go together, that this is not a matter of do we run an expensive accessible court or do we run a cheap as it is now court," he said. "And that the vast majority of things that improve access also save money in the long term."