Northern Wilds Magazine
Justice North, a civil legal law firm, celebrates its new name and location with a ribbon cutting. Seen here is Dorie Rapaport holding the scissors while surrounded by members of Justice North staff and bandmembers, as well as members of the Chamber Ambassadors. | SUBMITTED
Along the Shore

Justice North: Empowering communities with legal aid

In a criminal court, you have the right to an attorney, and if you can’t afford one, one will be appointed for you. But what if you have a civil legal case, like divorce, debt, landlord-tenant dispute, senior citizen abuse case, or a custody battle? Where can you turn for help? Justice North provides legal help for those who can’t afford it.

Justice North, formerly Legal Aid Service of Northeastern Minnesota (LASNEM), celebrated its new name with a ribbon-cutting on Nov. 1 last year at its new Wells Fargo Center offices, 230 W. Superior Street, Duluth.

“That’s a big deal. It really represents who we are,” Dori Rapaport, the executive director, said as she addressed the crowd. “The space is empowering.” At other nonprofits, you might look around and say, “Oh, I think this carpet might be held together by duct tape.”

“In many communities in America, there is no legal aid. There is no due process right to appoint counsel in civil matters,” said Fred Friedman, a retired public defender who serves on the Justice North board.

Tiffany Doherty, director of advocacy, supervises the legal staff of 29. “Generally, we see an increase in third-party custody cases,” she said. Recent years saw covid-related deaths of parents. Legal efforts secure safe homes, often with relatives, providing authority for education and medical care.

Addressing tenant/landlord disputes, Justice North’s Jude Schmit aided low-income tenants at Duluth’s St. Regis Apartments. “These were low-income folks who didn’t have heat. It started a couple of winters ago when it was cold in October,” Doherty said. It is an ongoing case. Financial awards are still pending.

Unique to the North Shore

Doherty highlighted challenges for North Shore residents: poor cell phone coverage and remote travel to legal centers. A positive outcome of the covid lockdown is remote virtual court. “Results show that people are appearing rather than no-showing,” Doherty said.

“We have poor housing stock,” Doherty said. Residents in rural areas may encounter issues with landlords regarding older housing or water access. As rural community members age, Justice North maintains an elder law division. While the agency must uphold confidentiality, elders often attend legal visits with the support of a grandchild or neighbor. Additionally, Justice North collaborates with the Bois Forte Band, enabling elders to receive legal advice during medical checkups for issues that concern them.

Legal Kiosks

“Legal kiosks are another one of those silver linings from covid,” Doherty said. Legal kiosks, free computers available for public use, aid those with limited internet access or phone task difficulties across Minnesota.

In Duluth, legal kiosks are available at the Damiano Center, Safe Haven, and the Justice North office. Two types are offered: Type A and Type B. Type B, which includes privacy and a computer printer, requires reservations. Find a nearby legal kiosk at: legalkiosk.org.

The Justice Bus

Another unique feature is the Justice Bus. “The Justice Bus is our legal aid office on wheels,” said Doherty. This mobile legal aid office, equipped with a computer, printer, WiFi, and legal staff, travels to regional areas and provides on-site services. It attends events, offering free legal advice, and groups can request its presence.

Contacting Justice North

Justice North has offices in Duluth, Virginia, Brainerd, Pine City, and Grand Rapids. They serve an 11-county area of northeastern Minnesota: Aitkin, Carlton, Cass, Cook, Crow Wing, Itasca, Kanabec, Koochiching, Lake, Pine, and St. Louis.

Visit their website (justicenorth.org) or call 877-MY-MN-LAW (877-696-6529).

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