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More Legal Resources Needed for North Dakotans' Disputes

One attorney compares filling out self-representation forms to learning a new language. (tanasin/Adobe Stock)
One attorney compares filling out self-representation forms to learning a new language. (tanasin/Adobe Stock)
July 31, 2019

BISMARCK, N.D. – One section of the North Dakota court system website that gets a lot of visitors is the Legal Self Help Center, but North Dakotans who choose to represent themselves in civil matters may need more resources than the state and nonprofit organizations can offer.

Attorney Catie Palsgraaf, the center's citizen access coordinator, is solely in charge of the center, although a paralegal soon will be joining the office. Palsgraaf has designed the website to answer as many questions as possible, but said she still gets about eight calls or emails a day asking for help.

"One person doing this for an entire state, it means I really have to limit the amount of time I can spend with any individual," she said, "and a lot of people need more than 10 to 15 minutes."

Some of the biggest issues with which the center assists are family law, evictions and guardianship, and Palsgraaf said the main reason people seek advice is because they can't afford an attorney. She compared filling out pro se or self-representation forms to learning a new language, adding that folks often call just for reassurance that they're on the right track.

Crystal Davis-Wolfrum does legal intake for Legal Services of North Dakota, which serves older or low-income people. She and two other specialists field four to five calls a day – typically about divorce and custody cases, landlord-tenant disputes or getting public assistance, such as Medicaid.

Davis-Wolfrum said people representing themselves sometimes call with documents they've purchased from legal websites, only to discover something is wrong. She noted these places don't always have a licensed North Dakota attorney on staff.

"While they may be providing the person with some forms that another attorney thinks meets the North Dakota guidelines," she said, "I've had many people call me where they got the forms, they filled them out, they filed them with the courts and, while everybody was in total agreement, they were missing something."

Davis-Wolfrum said the state could host legal clinics and provide additional funding for paralegals at Legal Services. She's convinced she's just scratching the surface of folks who need help.

"When we can't help them, we're having to refer them to the forms - and that's just the people who are calling us because they think they might be eligible," she said. "How many people need help out there who know they're not eligible, but can't afford an attorney?"

Disclosure: Legal Services of North Dakota contributes to our fund for reporting on Health Issues, Native American Issues, Poverty Issues, Senior Issues. If you would like to help support news in the public interest, click here.
Eric Tegethoff, Public News Service - ND