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Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid celebrates 100 years of ensuring access to justice

In 1913, John Benson opened the doors of a Minneapolis law office meant to help the poor and underserved. Today, that office has morphed into Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid.

“We truly have the ability to change lives.” —Cathy Haukedahl, executive director of Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid
Courtesy of Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid

One hundred years ago, John Benson opened the doors of a Minneapolis law office meant to help the poor and underserved. Today, that one-lawyer office has morphed into Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid, an organization that has since offered legal help to hundreds of thousands of vulnerable Minnesotans.

“That’s our bread and butter, helping one family at a time,” said Cathy Haukedahl, Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid’s executive director. “We truly have the ability to change lives.”

Courtesy of Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid
John Benson

Back in 1913, Benson, an early attorney of the law firm that became Faegre & Benson and is now Faegre Baker Daniels, was the new Legal Aid Department’s sole attorney. After opening its doors on April 15, Legal Aid received contributions from local leaders including John Crosby, Cyrus Northrup, A.F. Pillsbury and Charles Pillsbury. The mission was limited to Minneapolis.

Today, the organization serves more than 20 counties in central Minnesota with offices in Minneapolis, St. Cloud and Willmar housing dozens of attorneys. Its reach extends beyond that area with its statewide advocacy for people with disabilities and through its policy advocacy in the Minnesota Legislature.

The changes in 100 years have been vast.

  • In 1916, Legal Aid handled 3,029 cases, half of which were wage-related. In 2012, Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid handled more than 10,115 cases, the largest category being housing law.
  • In 1930, Legal Aid’s budget was $8,500. In 2012, it was about $11 million. (In 1931, the Legal Aid Department was incorporated as the Legal Aid Society of Minneapolis.)
  • In 1946, Legal Aid noted a rise in divorce and custody cases. In 2012, family law had become Legal Aid’s third-largest focus for clients.
  • In 1947, the Legal Aid Board of Directors noted a housing shortage which “has resulted in this society’s representation of many tenants in these matters.” In 2012, Legal Aid advised almost 3,300 clients with housing matters.
  • In 1966, Legal Aid received its first federal grant: $42,030 from the Office of Economic Opportunity. In 2012, Legal Aid received federal grants totaling more than $3 million from a variety of federal departments and agencies. 
  • In 1973, the federal government began supporting Legal Aid’s Developmental Disability Law Project. In 2012, Legal Aid’s Minnesota Disability Law Center received more than $1.7 million in federal funds to serve 1,178 disabled clients throughout the state.
  • In 1975, St. Cloud Area Legal Services (SCALS) was founded. In 1976, SCALS and Minneapolis Legal Aid joined together. In 2012, Legal Aid’s St. Cloud office served 2,655 clients in nine central Minnesota counties.
  • In 1979, Western Minnesota Legal Services was formed and later merged with Legal Aid. In 2013, the Willmar office served 1,254 clients in 10 counties.

Service via the Internet

Technological changes have allowed new, broader ways to serve clients. Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid  recently launched, a site accessible from any computer in the state that dispenses legal forms and help to any citizen in almost any language used in Minnesota today. It offers general information about legal rights, responsibilities and contact information for free or low-cost legal assistance. Some of the topics on the site include consumer mistreatment, family law, public benefits, housing discrimination and scams aimed at seniors and the disabled.

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“We very deliberately kept the language on the site to a low-literacy level and we have a help desk with a live person available for questions at any time,” Haukedahl said. “Last year we had 250,000 individual visitors to the site, and we expect to grow exponentially this year.”

Legal Aid also hosts, an online poverty-law resource for lawyers, law students and faculty advising low-income or disadvantaged clients.

“We want a place where attorneys can share resources so they don’t have to reinvent the wheel,” Haukedahl said.

The Disability Law Center

Over the past century, Legal Aid has helped thousands of Minnesotans with their individual problems, but it has also taken on larger problems in society. In 1980, Legal Aid was formally designated the Protection and Advocacy organization for Minnesotans with developmental disabilities. The designation later added advocacy for people with mental illness and physical disabilities, among others. Legal Aid’s Minnesota Disability Law Center does this work for people with disabilities statewide.

While Legal Aid works to help one family at a time, sometimes that requires taking on large entities to support many families.

In 1970, Legal Aid sued to allow the In Forma Pauperis process, which waives court filing fees and some costs for people with low incomes. Also in 1970, Legal Aid filed a federal class-action lawsuit challenging racial discrimination in employment by the Minneapolis Fire Department. That case resulted in desegregation of the department.

In 1972 Legal Aid filed a federal class-action suit that successfully challenged the unacceptable living conditions for people with mental retardation in Minnesota’s state hospitals. This suit led to “new protection for people with disabilities, and to the decentralization of facilities throughout the state,” Haukedahl said.

In 1974, Legal Aid won a federal class action challenging the Department of Agriculture’s failure to spend $278 million of appropriated funds on the food-stamp program. In 1980, it successfully challenged the federal government’s foreclosure practices of family farms in Minnesota. In 1987, it joined in consumer class actions challenging the sale of costly credit life insurance in conjunction with its loans.

Successfully fought discrimination in public housing

In 1992, Legal Aid sued on behalf of a group of African-American and Southeast Asian families, challenging historical patterns of race discrimination in the siting of public housing in Minneapolis. A consent decree in 1995 provided for the demolition and reconstruction of public housing, a community planning process, and new Section 8 vouchers to provide broader geographic choice and better living conditions.

In 2003, Legal Aid’s Minnesota Disability Law Center challenged the state’s plan for massive cuts to the Medicaid waiver program serving people with developmental disabilities. As a result, the state restored more than $50 million to the waiver program and provided protection against future cuts. In 2004, Legal Aid successfully challenged a state Medical Assistance statute that allowed medical providers to refuse services to persons who couldn’t afford co-payments.

And in 2009, Legal Aid sued Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s use of the unallotment statute to balance the budget, which included elimination of the Special Diet Program used by low-income Minnesotans to meet medically-required diet needs. The Minnesota Supreme Court held that Pawlenty’s action exceeded his authority, and the special diet funds were reinstated.

While these cases were high-profile, the organization does much of its work below the radar.

Help with child support, evictions, divorce …

“There are a lot of victims of abuse who need legal help and have nowhere else to go. They need help with divorce, housing, jobs, child support,” Haukedahl said. “There are people who are being evicted or who are living in inhospitable conditions. There are elderly people who face scams from the debt collection and mortgage industries. There are people fighting immigration and just trying to achieve economic stability.”

“The mission hasn’t changed. We still provide legal assistance to low income and disabled Minnesotans. The only thing that has changed is the scope,” Haukedahl said.