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Stategic Goal #1: Access to Justice

The transition from eCourtMN to OneCourtMN has created an opportunity for court-user-focused organizational changes, process improvement, and continuity of service experiences. Reengineering has been the strategic effort that has led these wide-ranging initiatives to continue to improve Minnesota’s court system.

OneCourtMN: Reengineering Minnesota’s Courts

The Reengineering Steering Committee was formed in January 2017 to provide strategic direction and statewide coordination on initiatives aimed to implement more efficient and effective processes for the eCourtMN environment. The Committee was made up of State Court Administration and district court staff. Much of the Committee’s efforts in 2017 were focused on information-sharing and the roll out of individual projects. 

Over the course of 2018, the Committee plotted a roadmap and implemented initiatives to rethink and improve court processes and the customer experience in the fully digital, eCourtMN environment. Members of the Committee also formed and led local reengineering committees in their districts to advise the statewide Committee and build consensus around the OneCourtMN vision and direction. The final meeting of the statewide Committee was held in December 2018.

The Minnesota Judicial Branch’s consistency, convenience, and customer-focus value statement guided the work of the Statewide Reengineering Committee and local committees. Major reengineering initiatives developed and implemented include:

  • The Conservator Account Review Program (CARP) was established to work in partnership with the existing Conservator Account Auditing Program to bring greater and more frequent review to conservator-managed accounts of the elderly and vulnerable. 
  • The transition to specialized document acceptance teams in judicial districts, and a new centralized oversight unit for document security, have resulted in fewer errors and more robust information-sharing.
  • The move to mandatory Court Administrative Processes was begun to help ensure consistent case processing across the state.
  • Three ambitious Small County Initiatives focused on centralization that were begun in 2017 and fully implemented in 2018 have sustained staffing in 17 rural, and the lowest volume, courthouses.
  • The statewide Central Appeals Unit was relocated from Hennepin County District Court to Judicial Branch staff working in Lincoln and Pipestone county courthouses. This move allowed the two rural counties to keep their courthouse customer service windows open to the public. 
  • The new Consolidated Jury Unit is located in the Ninth Judicial District and has increased efficiency and consistency in jury processes, while sustaining courthouse customer service staffing in northwest Minnesota. The new Unit has centralized contact information, 888-902-9581 and MJBjury@courts.state.mn.us, and has become a central point of contact for prospective jurors and statewide court staff. The Consolidated Jury Unit is responsible for the summoning and qualification of jurors in all 87 counties.  
  • The Eighth Judicial District will soon be processing expedited child support orders for eight of the 10 judicial districts. As of the close of 2018, the centralized staff in the Eighth District has already reduced processing time for expedited child support orders by 20%. 

Finally, State Court Administration directors and all judicial district administrators worked to digest the Reengineering Steering Committee recommendations and plot a course for 2019 and beyond. The group identified three organizational themes to address in the coming year:

  • Sustain innovation and constant improvement through better information- and idea-sharing
  • Improve and align the strategic planning process and project management systems 
  • Develop greater court user supports and expand engagement opportunities 

In so many different ways, reengineering is having a positive impact on Minnesota’s courts and court users. The electronic case record, coupled with all the new tools built during the transition to eCourtMN, have opened the door for the courts to work more efficiently, and process cases more effectively.

Audit office expands, offers new training

The Minnesota Judicial Branch Conservator Account Auditing Program has been nationally-lauded as an example of state government innovation and as a model for better protecting vulnerable individuals in need of conservatorship or guardianship. Two significant reengineering initiatives to improve conservator training and accountability were launched through the Conservator Account Auditing Program (CAAP) this year. CAAP was launched in 2012 as an effort to improve statewide oversight of court-appointed conservators and protect the assets of elderly and vulnerable Minnesotans. The Program previously audited all accounts with bondable asset balances of more than $3,000 after one year, accounts referred by the court, and larger accounts every four years. 

More frequent reviews for conservator-managed accounts

The Conservator Account Review Program (CARP) was launched in 2018 to provide regular review of accounts not subject to CAAP audits, and to provide public hearing preparation documents to district courts. One of the primary goals of this reengineering effort – in addition to providing greater oversight of conservator-managed accounts – is to provide district court judges more information and insight to assist in their decision-making process. CARP reviews accounts under $10,000 and older than one year, and larger conservator accounts in between those accounts’ fourth-year audits that are conducted by CAAP. With the addition of CARP, the CAAP auditors will now audit all conservator-managed accounts after each account’s first year. These more frequent reviews will allow auditors to more quickly identify any issues or concerns with an account. After the first year review, the CAAP unit will audit all accounts with assets over $10,000 every four years. In addition, CAAP will audit any account referred to auditors by the reviewers working in CARP.

Before CARP was established, local district court officials were performing regular account reviews. CAAP and CARP findings are presented to the parties and district judge. CARP audits will include a new, public Account Review Report summarizing the findings of a review. In addition to the Account Review Report, since April 2019, CARP reviewers have also begun submitting a hearing preparation document into the Minnesota Court Information System (MNCIS) before each hearing in a conservatorship case. 

A new training and information hub for conservators and guardians

A new self-paced online training module was launched in 2018 to offer more resources and training for conservators and guardians. The interactive, online training was developed through grant funding from the State Justice Institute and in partnership with the National Center for State Courts. The training details step-by-step explanations of the guardianship and conservatorship processes, from the legal process by which a conservator or guardian is approved, to the powers granted to a court-appointed guardian or conservator, to the specific reporting requirements that guardians and conservators must meet. The training also reviews information on the legal rights of individuals who need a guardianship or a conservatorship, includes a glossary of key legal terms conservators and guardians may encounter in their duties, and links to other helpful guardianship and conservatorship resources, including relevant court forms and the Minnesota Judicial Branch’s Guardianship and Conservatorship Manual. 

Conservators appointed in Minnesota already submit their annual accounts through MyMNConservator, an online application that contains built-in “red flag” logic that automatically reviews filed accounts and alerts auditors to possible errors, inconsistencies, or transactions that require further review. In addition, a team of trained experts working as part of a centralized conservator account auditing center now conduct compliance audits on conservator accounts from across the state. The Minnesota Judicial Branch is currently developing MyMinnesotaGuardian, which aims to make it faster and easier for guardians to submit their well-being reports to the court, and simpler for the court to review and track these reports and identify any concerns.

Safeguarding court user information through specialization

The Minnesota Judicial Branch is responsible for an enormous number of court documents that make up court user case files. Keeping this data safe and appropriately classified has led to another reengineering effort. Specialized document acceptance teams (DATs) have been established in judicial districts to improve document security and classification. 

Audit findings made it clear that it was no longer realistic to have staff juggling document acceptance duties alongside all of their other work. The DATs are comprised of staff who devote at least half of their time to reviewing, classifying, and accepting electronically-filed documents. This allows DATs to develop expertise in the complex rules that govern document security classification, and to spend more of their time becoming proficient in this important work. In addition to district DATs, the Branch has also implemented centralized monitoring of document security classification entries. This monitoring allows Court Administrative Processes (CAPs) Unit staff to identify and analyze statewide trends, provide guidance to districts, and ensure consistent practices for the document security classification work performed by the DATs. Overall document security errors are decreasing, clearly showing that specialization and oversight has improved security and classification efforts. 

Consistent statewide administration processes improve court user experience 

In January 2018, an important reengineering effort was launched when CAPs adherence became a requirement for district court administrative staff statewide. The first CAPs were developed in 2008 to assist district court staff and improve the accuracy of case management records. In 2018 there were more than 87 CAPs. The purpose of CAPs will slowly transition from serving as resources for court staff, to mandatory guides for how cases should be uniformly processed across the state. New CAPs, and CAPs updated or revised after January 2018, are considered mandatory processes for each district court.

This reengineering effort will make it easier for court users and justice partners to work in multiple counties and districts, will ensure more accurate and reliable court data, and will allow judicial districts to explore collaboration and sharing work across county and district lines. In July 2018, a CAPs Compliance Monitoring Plan was put into place, which will evolve as more CAPs are developed and updated. Initial monitoring of CAPs compliance focuses on critical factors such as public safety, integrations, and data accuracy. The goal of the CAPs Compliance Monitoring Plan is to ensure the most critical CAPs are standardized as efficiently as possible, while also ensuring staff have the training and resources they need to effectively follow these processes.  

Self-help centers offer new resources, expand on successes

Minnesota ranks as one of the highest-scoring states in the nation on the Justice Index, an independent examination of how well state court systems ensure access to justice for those who can’t afford an attorney, those with limited-English proficiency, and those with disabilities. The Minnesota Judicial Branch rolled out two new electronic tools to better serve self-represented litigants in 2018. Minnesota Guide & File was launched in June. Also launched were new fillable smart forms. 

Guide & File is an online tool that uses web-based “interviews” to help people create the most-used court forms. Rather than filling in fields on a court form, Guide & File reduces “guess work” by asking the user simple questions, and creating forms based on the answers to those questions. The resulting forms can then be printed or filed electronically with the court. Guide & File is available for conciliation court claims, eviction action complaints, subsequent affidavits of service for eFiling eviction complaints, and, as of early 2019, orders for protection/harassment restraining orders.

A Guide & File help topic was also developed to help court users navigate the system. In the seven months of production in 2018, 8,085 documents were created through Guide & File, and cases were eFiled in all 10 districts and 60 different counties.

Online court forms are a critical resource for self-represented litigants. In 2018, to make form completion less confusing for self-represented litigants, the Self-Help Center launched new online fillable “smart” forms. The court forms are available free of charge on the Judicial Branch website and are approved for use in any district court in Minnesota. Fillable smart forms are now available for approximately half of the 500 court forms. These forms have built-in intelligence that makes it easier for self-represented litigants to complete and file court forms quickly and accurately. Some of the features of fillable smart forms include:

  • When an answer is completed for one field, that answer will show up in other spots on the form that asks for the same information. This eliminates the need to retype duplicate information.
  • Questions on the form that are not necessary, because of previous answers, will stay hidden. For example, if an answer indicates there are no children, subsequent fields asking for the names of children will not display.
  • Some answer fields will expand to allow longer answers. Previous formats required a separate document to provide longer answers.
  • The forms allow for the use of an electronic signature, eliminating the need to print, sign, and potentially re-scan the completed document.
  • The forms can be easily prepared for eFiling by using the “Prepare for eFile” button on the form.

New video helps Minnesotans seeking criminal record expungement

The Statewide Self-Help Center launched a new video to help people complete the process for a criminal record expungement. The step-by-step video explains how to complete the necessary forms, and overviews what court users should expect during the process of petitioning for a criminal record expungement. The video is broken into 16 short chapters for easy navigation, totaling approximately one hour of video explanation in plain language. Each chapter is between one and seven minutes long. 

Last year, the Minnesota Judicial Branch’s statewide virtual Self-Help Center, which assists self-represented litigants, handled more than 24,000 phone calls and answered more than 3,700 emails.

Cameras in the courtroom pilot ends, permanent rules established with public input

In an August 2015 order, the Minnesota Supreme Court amended Rule 4 of the General Rules of Practice to authorize a pilot project that permitted, without the consent of the parties, limited audio and video coverage in certain criminal court proceedings. The amendment took effect in November 2015. As directed by the Supreme Court in its order, the Advisory Committee on the Rules of Criminal Procedure worked with the State Court Administrator’s Office (SCAO) to monitor the pilot and, in December 2017, submitted a report to the Court that summarizes the information collected, the issues the Committee discussed, and the Committee’s recommendations regarding the pilot and Rule 4 of the General Rules of Practice. 

In April 2018, the Minnesota Supreme Court held a public hearing on the report and recommendations submitted to the Court by the Advisory Committee on the Rules of Criminal Procedure related to the current district court “cameras in the courtroom” pilot. The Advisory Committee report recommended the permanent codification, with several amendments, of the pilot rules that permit, without the consent of the parties, limited audio and video coverage of criminal court proceedings that occur after a guilty verdict has been returned or a guilty plea accepted. The Supreme Court accepted written public comment on the Advisory Committee report and received 10 written comments. The comments are available to the public via case file ADM09-8009 in the Minnesota Appellate Courts Case Management System (MACS). 

From November 2015 to the end of 2018, there were 351 camera requests in 208 criminal cases. Coverage was granted in 111 cases. Four of the cases saw no decision on cameras, as they were dismissed, and one of the cases for which sentencing was to be covered resulted in an acquittal. In one other case, the media backed out because the decision about the camera would not be made until after hearing from the parties about it right before the hearing that was to be covered took place. 

In July 2018, the Court issued an order creating permanent rules for cameras in the courtroom. An accompanying form is now available for media to use when submitting requests for cameras. 

Some highlights of the order include: 

  • Judges may not deny a request for a camera at a sentencing simply because the guilty plea will not be accepted until right before the sentencing. 
  • The media are no longer required to notify the parties about notices of coverage. Court administration staff is now responsible for this. 
  • Media are now required to submit a notice of coverage seven days in advance of the hearing they wish to cover, instead of the 10 days required during the pilot. 
  • Amendments were made to clarify and refine the category of domestic violence proceedings in which coverage is generally prohibited by confining the category of excluded cases to those in which the victim is defined as a family or household member under Minn. Stat. § 518B.01, subd. 2(b) (2016). 

Remote interpreting

Over the past two years, the Minnesota Judicial Branch has been pilot-testing new ways to remotely connect court interpreters with courtrooms across the state. The pilot has involved using modern audio and video technology to deliver quality interpreter services in a more efficient and cost-effective manner. Costs for interpreter travel continue to increase as the need for interpreters grows statewide, and many of the most qualified interpreters are located in the metro area. Remote interpreting can significantly reduce travel costs by allowing an interpreter to virtually appear in courtrooms across the state from his or her office or a nearby courthouse. It also allows interpreters to use their time more efficiently by reducing the hours they have traditionally spent traveling from courthouse to courthouse.

Based on the success of the pilot – including positive feedback from judges, staff, attorneys, and case participants – the Judicial Council formed an ad hoc workgroup to assess how the Judicial Branch could use the pilot findings to expand the use of remote interpreting. Using the recommendations of that short-term workgroup, the Judicial Council approved policy changes to promote increased use of remote interpreting technology for certain types of short hearings, as well as the formation of a statewide workgroup to continue discussions on how best to provide quality, cost-effective interpreter services across the state.

The policy changes encourage district courts with the technological capability to more readily use remote interpreting for short hearings, when it is determined that it is more fiscally responsible than an in-person interpreter, and when the quality of the interpretation would not be compromised. Currently, fewer than five percent of all interpreter court hearings are done with the interpreter in a remote location. 

Remote interpreting also must be considered in urgent or unexpected situations where no in-person staff or freelance interpreter is reasonably available. The revised policies make in-person interpreting the priority for many longer proceedings, including trials, hearings at which witnesses testify under oath, and civil motion hearings. 

The ongoing statewide workgroup began meeting in October 2018, and will develop recommendations for how the Judicial Branch can continue to provide quality, cost-effective interpreter services across the state. The workgroup will also look at the technological, staffing, and training needs to expand the use of remote interpreting. 

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 2018, the Clinic assisted 181 people. Twenty-seven of those sessions were done over the phone with individuals who were   not   in   the   metro   area. Ninety-three 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 90 unemployment appeals.