On a recent Friday at the Becker County Courthouse, Charlene Moorhouse of Audubon was in the basement Law Library, with her notes and documents spread out over the conference table. She was preparing to file for a divorce.
“I don’t want to be married to him, he doesn’t want to be married to me,” she said. “He drove off and left me holding the bag. You can’t be married to someone who isn’t there.”
Detroit Lakes attorney Stuart Kitzmann was there to help with questions as she filled out the legal forms.
Kitzmann can’t help people plan out legal strategies, but he can guide them to the right legal forms, download and print them if necessary, and help make sure they are filled out correctly for court. His help, like all the resources at the law library, is free of charge.
“It’s a place where you can get free information,” said Law Librarian Bill Wilson. “We don’t really give out legal advice, but the books do.”
Kitzmann is at the law library from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Fridays. Court forms can be confusing to nonlawyers, and his guidance is helpful, Moorhouse said.
Looking over her paperwork, Kitzmann noticed she hadn’t completed income information in one section. “You’ll need to fill that in,” he said. “And on Page 19, all these need to be filled in -- it’s what you are asking the court to do.”
By talking with her, he also ascertained that she wanted to ask the court for spousal maintenance. “Otherwise there’s no way to pay me back, unless he brings back my truck,” she said.
Kitzmann, who specializes in family law, is there as part of a program administered by Legal Services of Northwest Minnesota, which serves 22 counties, including Becker.
“I enjoy it,” Kitzmann said. “It’s one of the most rewarding parts of my practice now.”
Help from a real, live attorney
Kitzmann pioneered the Legal Services self-help clinic in Becker County in 2014. Every Minnesota county is required to have a law library, and Clay, Roseau, Marshall and Becker also have the self-help clinics. Polk County started with Legal Service and now runs its own self-help clinic.
Judges appreciate it because the legal forms are filled out fully and correctly for court, speeding up the process, said Anne Hoefgen, executive director of Legal Services of Northwest Minnesota. Without the legal help, it’s not unusual for cases to be postponed and rescheduled because forms aren’t complete, she said.
Kitzmann finds out what legal forms people need, and provides the packet, which includes the form and detailed instructions. People often take it home, work on it, and bring it back a week later for Kitzmann to look over.
“Family law forms have to be brought back to me so I can review them, make sure they’re complete and there are no questions, then I can stamp it, initial it and they can file it,” he said. “That way the judge knows it won’t be kicked back because they left out Page 3. It was really gumming up the judicial system. It was just wasting time for everyone — litigants, too. They had to start over.”
“Having an actual person in there to help people with the forms ended up being a smart way to go,” Hoefgen said. “It’s helpful to have someone there to give you information about what this (legal) language means, someone who knows the logistics and is familiar with how a court hearing would work.” That could be something as simple as setting up a hearing date with court administration, or filing a motion to change the time or date of a custody hearing that the person otherwise couldn’t attend, she said.
“A little inside baseball, a little insider information is really helpful, it helps people represent themselves,” Hoefgen added. “And it helps the court to have someone walk in there with an understanding of how it works.”
Lining up for family law and other civil cases
For the self-help clinic, Kitzmann receives about a third of what is considered average pay for a Legal Services attorney, low enough so that it qualifies as pro bono work for the indigent, he said. The money comes from the law library fund generated from $15 filing fees for civil cases, and also from most criminal cases, ordered during sentencing, Wilson said.
If Kitzmann can’t make it on a Friday, longtime Legal Services staff member Sherry Grunhagen of Detroit Lakes fills in at the Law Library, Hoefgen said.
Criminal cases involving the indigent are handled by public defenders. The self-help clinic is there for civil cases, and there are no income requirements, Kitzmann said. Most cases he helps with involve family law issues — custody, parental rights, divorce and domestic abuse — and small claims court.
“Family law has been my focus throughout my career,” Kitzmann said. “They are very important issues for people, really intense and emotional, especially family stuff.
"People are very grateful,” for the legal help, he said.
‘Huge numbers’ go to family court without a lawyer
More often than not, in family law cases, “one or more family members are unrepresented in family court,” Hoefgen said. “There are huge, huge numbers of people who go into court on family law issues unrepresented.”
If someone at the Law Library clinic decides they need more legal help than he is allowed to provide, Kitzmann can refer them to the Becker County Walk-in Clinic from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Thursdays at MAHUBE-OTWA Community Action Program in Detroit Lakes. That clinic is also staffed by Legal Services of Northwest Minnesota, but that one is income-based.
During his work at the Law Library clinic, Kitzmann said “I can’t refer people to specific lawyers, and I’m conflicted-out if they try to hire me for that specific case. Another case that comes down the road is OK.”
It’s not all family law cases that come through the legal clinic, of course: there are cases involving housing, employment, senior issues, public assistance and disability benefits, Hoefgen said. That includes people that have been locked out of their rental housing or have repair issues; people denied unemployment benefits; seniors who need a simple will or health care directive; people denied necessary medical care or unable to work because of a disability, and people needing protective orders.
It’s first-come, first-served at the Law Library clinic, so people tend to show up at 11 a.m., Kitzmann said. On a recent Friday, a half-dozen people were waiting for help when the clinic opened. Sometimes more show up, or nobody comes that day, he said. For some reason, wintertime tends to be busier than summertime, he said.
For next year, Legal Services is looking at adding extra hours on some other day of the week, since not everybody can get there on Fridays, he said. The details haven’t been finalized yet.
Family law mediator may be coming soon
The county is looking at getting creative with Law Library funds. Commissioners are considering hiring a mediator for some family law cases, “to help mom and dad decide these things before it goes to court,” said Becker County Administrator Mike Brethorst. “It would save court time.”
The county is considering minor remodeling in the basement near the Law Library to create mediation rooms, he said. “They could sit down with a nonpartisan, fully trained, vetted mediator to assist them with their issues,” he said. State permission is needed to use Law Library funds to create mediation rooms, but “it would be a nice thing to have if we can make it happen,” Brethorst said.
Although the Law Library is filled with legal books, “the books don’t get the use they used to get,” said Bill Wilson, who has run the Law Library for more than 10 years. And that’s probably just as well, he added. Law school instruction has largely gone digital, so both attorneys and nonattorneys largely find information online these days, he said.
“There is an advantage to online research updates on a website as opposed to books,” he added. “If a statute is amended or changed, you could end up using old law from the book. Digitally, it’s a lot easier (to stay current). That’s one of the great advantages.” Attorneys used to have to research a case to make sure the law hadn’t changed, he said.
There is lots of information for non-lawyers at the Law Library, with pamphlets available on everything from mobile home parks, to privacy to telephones, he said. “All kinds of things, printed with non-lawyer audiences in mind,” he said. “It’s a place where you can get free information -- if you need it, it’s there, he said.