Minnesota Courts Thrive in the Age of eCourtMN
In 2012, the Minnesota Judicial Branch launched a multi-year initiative called eCourtMN. Through eCourtMN, the Judicial Branch aimed to transition from paper-based court files to electronic case records. The ultimate goal of this transformation was to make Minnesota’s justice system more efficient and more convenient for court users, while increasing access to court records for customers and the public.
In July 2016, the primary goal of eCourtMN was achieved, as electronic filing and electronic service of court documents became standard in every district court in the state, as well as in the state’s two appellate courts. This past year, 2017, marked the first full year Minnesota’s court system operated under this new eCourtMN environment. Below is a look at how the new technologies and processes of eCourtMN have transformed Minnesota’s justice system.
eCourtMN By The Numbers
District court users eFiled 3.4 million documents in 2017, an average of 280,000 documents every month. By the end of 2017, there were 58,000 registered eFilers in Minnesota.
Appellate court users eFiled 29,000 documents with the Minnesota Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court in 2017.
More than 570 government agencies across the state are using Minnesota Government Access, an online portal providing secure, real- time access to appropriate court records and documents for law enforcement, prosecutors, public defenders, and other partners.
The Minnesota Judicial Branch maintains extensive data integrations with a variety of government agencies across the state, allowing for the instantaneous transfer of court information throughout Minnesota’s justice system, and resulting in more than 7 million data exchanges every month.
Minnesota Expands Nation-Leading Services for Self-Represented Litigants
Minnesota is a nationally-recognized leader in providing services to self-represented litigants (SRLs) through self-help centers, as well as through collaborations with bar associations, legal services organizations, and law libraries. According to the “Justice Index,” a tool developed by the National Center for Access to Justice, Minnesota ranks among the top states in the nation in providing access to justice for those who cannot afford an attorney, those with disabilities, and those with limited-English proficiency.
In 2017, Minnesota continued offering a wide array of services to people representing themselves in court proceedings, and neared completion on two new initiatives aimed at making it easier for SRLs to complete and file court forms.
Virtual Self-Help Services
To provide assistance to court customers across the state, the Minnesota Judicial Branch manages a “virtual” statewide Self Help Center. This Center provides assistance to SRLs in a variety of ways:
- Online: Through more than 50 “Help Topics” located on the Minnesota Judicial Branch website, customers can find general legal information, court forms, videos and tutorials, and links to low-cost or no-cost legal advice. All of this information is provided in plain language to increase accessibility.
- Phone: The statewide Self Help Center handled nearly 23,000 phone calls from SRLs in 2017.
- E-mail: The statewide Self Help Center answered nearly 4,000 e-mails from SRLs in 2017.
Fillable Smart Court Forms Set to Launch
In 2017, Judicial Branch staff began converting more than 500 court forms currently available on the Judicial Branch website into fillable smart forms. Fillable smart forms have built-in intelligence that will assist users as they fill out a form online, making it faster and easier for SRLs to create and file necessary forms. It is anticipated that the first several categories of fillable smart forms will be available on the Judicial Branch website in the first quarter of 2018.
“Guide & File” Tool Developed
Guide & File is an online tool that uses web-based “interviews” to help people create court forms. Rather than filling in fields on a court form, the interview tool asks the user simple questions, and then uses the answers to those questions to produce a court form that can be printed or filed electronically with the court.
During 2017, the Judicial Branch developed and tested three Guide & File interviews for:
- Conciliation court forms;
- Eviction forms (used by landlords); and
- Affidavit of service forms (conciliation court, eviction).
It is anticipated that these interviews will be released on the Judicial Branch website in the first quarter of 2018. Additional Guide & File interviews will be developed in 2018.
Since 2008, self-help workstations (consisting of a desk, computer, printer, and phone) that can be used to find court information, print court forms, and talk over the phone with statewide Self Help Center staff about forms, procedures, and legal resources, have been made available in 89 courthouse and library locations across Minnesota.
District Court Walk-In Self-Help Centers
Several district courts operate walk-in self-help centers that provide customers with extensive information and resources about Minnesota’s court system.
In 2017, Hennepin County walk-in self-help centers located at the Government Center and Family Justice Center provided assistance to 39,318 SRLs. Each walk-in center hosts daily on-site brief legal advice clinics.
The Ramsey County Family Court walk-in Self-Help Center provided assistance to 10,973 SRLs in 2017. In addition, the Ramsey County Family Court Legal Advice Clinic, which is held three afternoons per week and is staffed by volunteer attorneys, assisted 590 customers in 2017. The Court’s Motion to Modify Child Support Clinic, which is held twice per month and is staffed by Self-Help Center employees, assisted 48 customers with 57 matters in 2017.
Tenth Judicial District
Minnesota’s Tenth Judicial District offers a Self-Help Center with weekly walk-in service hours at the courthouses located in Anoka, Chisago, Isanti, Kanabec, Pine, Sherburne, Washington, and Wright counties. In 2017, the Tenth District Self-Help Center provided SRLs with assistance on 5,849 matters, a 33 percent increase from 2016.
State Law Library
In 2016, the Minnesota State Law Library in St. Paul launched a new Self-Help Clinic to provide free assistance to individuals seeking to file an appeal with the Minnesota Court of Appeals or the Minnesota Supreme Court. The Appeals Self-Help Clinic is held monthly, and offers SRLs an opportunity to have a brief meeting, at no cost, with a volunteer attorney to better understand the rules and procedures of Minnesota’s appellate courts.
Almost a quarter of all appeals in Minnesota involve a party who is not represented by an attorney. Volunteer attorneys are coordinated through the Appellate Practice Section of the Minnesota State Bar Association. In 2017, t h e Clinic assisted 143 people. Twenty-two of those sessions were done over the phone with individuals who were not in the metro area. Ninety-five percent of the Clinic customers reported being satisfied or very satisfied with the assistance received.
The State Law Library also offers a twice-monthly clinic to assist people appealing a denial of unemployment benefits to the Court of Appeals. Over 80 percent of this type of case involves a party who is unrepresented. There were 103 unemployment appeals filed last year, and the clinic assisted 37 people in 2017. The clinic’s volunteer attorneys are primarily members of the Labor and Employment Law Section of the Minnesota State Bar Association.
In addition to the help provided at the appellate clinics, the State Law Library continues its long tradition of serving anyone seeking legal information via the phone, e-mail, mail, live chat, and in person.
Grant Program Funds $1 Million in Courthouse Security Improvements
In June 2017, Minnesota Supreme Court Chief Justice Lorie S. Gildea announced the award of $1 million in grants through the Safe and Secure Courthouse Initiative. The grants were awarded to 57 counties to fund a variety of safety and security improvements in courthouses across Minnesota, including:
- Helping counties conduct professional security assessments of their facilities;
- Providing security training to courthouse officials andstaff;
- Installing bullet-resistant glass at public service counters;
- Replacing aging security equipment;
- Implementing door locks, cameras, key card readers, and duress alarms; and
- Installing or upgrading security screening stations at courthouse entrances.
The Safe and Secure Courthouse Initiative was established by Chief Justice Gildea and funded by a $1 million appropriation from the Minnesota Legislature in 2016. The grant program was based on a legislative proposal brought forward by the Courthouse Security Workgroup, a statewide coalition of county and justice system partners convened by Chief Justice Gildea in 2014. The Workgroup included representatives from the Minnesota Judicial Branch, the Association of Minnesota Counties, the Minnesota Sheriffs’ Association, the Minnesota County Attorneys Association, the Minnesota Board of Public Defense, and the Minnesota Inter-County Association.
Following passage of legislative funding for the program, Chief Justice Gildea formed an Advisory Panel to oversee the grant application and award process. Grant applications were accepted between January 2017 and March 2017. In total, the Advisory Panel received grant requests from 59 counties, totaling more than $3.5 million.
View a list of counties receiving grants
through the Safe and Secure Courthouse Initiative.
Minnesota Receives Justice for All Grant
Minnesota was one of seven states to receive a grant through the National Center for State Courts (NCSC) Justice for All Advisory Committee in 2017 to create a strategic plan
for increasing access to effective assistance for essential civil legal needs. This required close coordination among the Minnesota Judicial Branch, civil legal aid, and the private bar as the leads, as well as input and review from more than 60 stakeholder groups from across the state.
A Minnesota Justice for All Steering Committee was formed and led the effort, chaired by Stearns County Judge Sarah Hennesy. Based on the assessment of services currently available and the input from community partners, there were five areas that the Steering Committee identified as high priorities for improving access to the justice system.