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Legal Aid has been working toward justice for Minnesota’s most vulnerable for 100 years.

Legal aid changes clients’ lives

Cathy Haukedahl

Representing the vulnerable for 100 years

Legal Aid opened its doors as a one-person office founded on the idea that it would help clients gain access to the services they are entitled to, such as the ability to buy food, maintain decent housing, live safe from abusive spouses or partners and educate their children. Today, 60 Legal Aid lawyers (along with 29 legal advocates and assistants and 36 administrative and support staff) advocate on behalf of thousands of Minnesotans, but neither the need nor the mission has changed. Legal Aid has been working toward justice for Minnesota’s most vulnerable for 100 years.

On April 15, 1913, Legal Aid opened for business in Minneapolis with John Benson (cofounder of Faegre & Benson, now Faegre Baker Daniels) as its full-time attorney.  Working with University of Minnesota law clerks, he handled over 3,000 cases that year.

Today, Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid represents and advises people in the 20 counties of central Minnesota from the Wisconsin to the South Dakota borders. Legal Aid represents people from offices in Minneapolis, St. Cloud and Willmar.  In 2012, Legal Aid represented and advised over 3,000 clients with housing matters alone. In addition to cases handled by staff, Legal Aid partners with students, private and corporate attorneys, and government agencies to extend our service to more people seeking our help.

Throughout its history Legal Aid has focused on preventing homelessness. In a recent case Legal Aid helped a Minneapolis man with a disability who was at risk of losing his home. He had been able to keep his home because of a mortgage modification program, but he fell behind on payments.  The house had tornado damage, and he paid out-of-pocket for a leaky window problem that insurance wouldn’t handle.  He applied to the county for emergency assistance, but was denied because he couldn’t get the mortgage company to give the specific information the county needed.  He contacted Legal Aid for help.

Housing and benefits attorneys worked together, combining experience with the county’s administrative requirements and understanding of complex mortgage rules and paperwork.  The county gave the requested assistance.  The client kept his mortgage modification, is current on payments, and his family is stabilized.

Legal Aid has also helped victims of domestic violence since its doors opened.  Legal Aid services have been found to be a key to long term success in this area.  Economists at the University of Arkansas and Colgate University analyzed 10 years of national domestic violence data and found that legal services were the only significant variable in reducing domestic violence.

In April of 2009, Legal Aid’s St. Cloud office entered a partnership with the Stearns County Domestic Violence Court that has garnered state and national attention and recognition.  As the first repeat felony domestic violence court in the nation, it redefines how to provide services for victims and places a priority on better results for children. The project, which involves the county attorney, judges, probation officers, victim services, and county law enforcement, has been extremely successful.    As Stearns County Attorney Janelle Kendal was advised, “The thing that will change [a survivor’s] world is a Legal Aid lawyer.”

A domestic violence victim in St. Cloud who worked with Legal Aid in 2012 says, “Legal Aid saw me all the way through the very difficult divorce process.  They were always there with information, representation and encouragement.  It was such an enormous gift to have someone on my side, every time.”

Legal aid also has a long history of multi-plaintiff cases and class actions that benefit society.

In 1972, Legal Aid filed Welsch v. Likins, a federal class action challenging the unacceptable living conditions and lack of treatment of persons with mental retardation in state hospitals.  This case led to the deinstitutionalization of people with Developmental Disabilities in Minnesota and the creation of Minnesota’s community based service system for people with Developmental Disabilities.

In 1973, when federal funding began for Protection and Advocacy Services for people with Developmental Disabilities, the funding came to Legal Aid because of its work in Welsch.  In 1980, Legal Aid was formally designated by Gov. Al Quie as the Protection & Advocacy organization for people with disabilities in Minnesota.  This work is carried out by Legal Aid’s Disability Law Center (DLC).

Between 2003 and 2012, DLC successfully represented deaf clients in nine cases against hospitals that did not provide adequate sign language interpreter services.  One man was in a bicycle accident and suffered multiple injuries, including severe internal organ damage.  His recovery required several months in the hospital, and the hospital provided an interpreter for only a few hours of his extended stay.  He had no interpretation for most of his meetings with doctors or explanations of test results.

The settlements in this and the eight cases set standards for sign language interpreters and procedures for care of deaf clients.  Thanks to this strong advocacy, deaf people now have improved access to a number of services most Minnesotans take for granted.

Back in 1947 when an acute housing shortage caused much strife and litigation between landlords and tenants, certain lawyers and landlords were bitterly critical when Legal Aid offered a successful or vigorous defense – with the assumption that LA should offer only token resistance on behalf of people unable to pay a fee.  At that point, Legal Aid staff made it clear that a client’s payment or non-payment had no bearing on the manner in which they would proceeds with trial or settlement.

Legal Aid makes a difference in the community because we change lives – helping people find their path out of poverty.

Throughout its 100-year history, Legal Aid has seen thousands of clients – old and young, recent immigrants and long-time residents, people with an incredible variety of backgrounds, talents, and dreams for the future.  The one thing they’ve all shared is a problem – a problem they lack the knowledge, the access or the resources to solve without help.  With each client, in each decade with each new set of challenges, we’ve stayed firmly committed to our mission – to advocate for the legal rights of disadvantaged people to have safe, healthy and independent lives in strong communities.

Cathy Haukedahl is the executive director of Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid.

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