Students who are in need of legal advice can access a free resource in the Commuter Center.
The university’s law firm – Moore, Costello and Hart – has been offering free legal advice since the late 1980s. But the service dates back even further than that.
“The history of it goes back to the mid ’80s,” said Josh Hengemuhle, area manager for the Commuter Center and off-campus services. “Two brothers who graduated from St. Thomas and went on to become lawyers, wanted to find a way to be able to give back.”
The brothers started the process, but at some point they were unable to continue providing the service. So attorneys from Moore, Costello and Hart stepped in and have been volunteering time to provide the free service to students ever since.
An estimated 50 to 75 students take advantage of the service each year, Hengemuhle said. He added that he thinks the center may be on pace to exceed that average this year.
Most common questions: landlord issues
The most common questions asked deal with landlord-tenant issues. But Heidi Neff Christianson, one attorney from the firm, said she has also been asked questions about criminal cases, custody issues, personal income taxes, how to start a business and racial profiling.
“I think that students appreciate just being guided in a direction,” she said. “At least it gives them a starting point from which to go on their legal questions. I think it’s important because it’s hard to access legal services if you don’t know where to start, so I see us more as a referral service in many cases than actually giving legal advice.”
Last year the Commuter Center distributed the commuter and off-campus student experience survey, a national survey to get reactions about different services that tend to be offered out of commuter services offices. The survey showed that, of those who weren’t aware that free legal advice was being offered, more than 60 percent said they would be interested in taking advantage of the service, Hengemuhle said.
Senior Bobby Edwards, a commuter adviser, said it’s important for this service to be provided for students.
“We have a lot of students who rent houses in the community and along with that comes issues with landlords, neighbors and tenants,” Edwards said. “So we provide access to legal advice to ensure that those issues are dealt with properly and don’t interfere with the students’ educational life. It also provides a resource that they can use after they graduate.”
The next Free Legal Advice day will be Dec. 2 from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. in the Commuter Center. During the spring semester the service will be offered twice each month from February through April and once each during May and June.
Stephani Bloomquist can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org