In 2005, the Minnesota Supreme Court finished uniting all of the various district courts in Minnesota into a single, integrated court system. Since then, the courts have been working on infrastructure, but next year, the courts will roll out the first test drive of an electronic filing system in Hennepin County.
John Kostouros, from the Court Information Office, says says some of the changes have been in a works for some time. Others are the result of an attempt to increase efficiency and make better use of an insufficient budget. Chief Justice Eric Magnuson, who comes from large, private law firms, is used to using technology to leverage resources, and he wants to bring smart technology to the courts, too, to free up personnel for other tasks.
The courts must do more with less. Although court filing fees have doubled in the last six years, those fees go to the general fund, not the courts. The Legislature cut the budget the last time around, and more cuts may be on the horizon. If that happens, Kostouros says, we may see courts that are only open a few days a week. He says “we’ve hit the tipping point,” and may not be able to function normally if the Legislature doles out another big cut.
Bankruptcy court reaches out
All of Minnesota’s courts offer some level of help to pro se parties, but the Minnesota U.S. Bankruptcy Court — with help from the Volunteer Lawyers Network and the Minnesota Bar Association — stands out. Bankrupcty filings are (way) up, and plenty of bankruptcy filers are trying to go it alone. Over 500 this year, according to the Star Tribune.
People representing themselves are always at a disadvantage in the legal system. In bankruptcy, an improper petition could result in no discharge at all or the failure to discharge debts that should have been discharged. At the free bankruptcy clinic, 16 volunteer attorneys donate 15 minutes to each person they see, hoping to set them out on the right path and make the process work more smoothly for everyone. Volunteers who are members of VLN are also covered by VLN’s malpractice insurance.
So far, it has been a success, and the court recently made the clinic a permanent fixture.