Mandatory E-filing at Courts in Minnesota

Jennifer Yopp
Justice Innovation Center
CNA

Overview
Traveling to a courthouse to submit and review documents can take considerable time, particularly in rural areas. Staff time is required to file, process, serve, and maintain these paper files, creating challenges for small or understaffed agencies.

E-filing enables legal service providers and the public to file legal documents electronically without having to travel to the courthouse. Multiple parties can access the documents remotely and simultaneously. E-filing systems can be used to automate common tasks, like processing filing fees, logging docket entries, and emailing involved parties when documents are submitted.

The implementation of e-filing in the Ninth Judicial District of Minnesota is arguably the largest paradigm shift the court system has seen in its 150-year history. The district comprises 17 counties in Northwest Minnesota—over half of the state’s border counties and 12 rural counties—and e-filing has increased the District's geographic accessibility by those in remote areas, and helped lighten staff workloads.

Technology and operations solutions
The state of Minnesota implemented e-filing at the state level in support of its efforts to make its courts paperless, and designed and funded a web-based e-filing application that integrated into its case management system (CMS). In addition, Minnesota Supreme Court Rule 14 allowed electronic signatures, with certified stamps replacing raised seals for certified documents. The state mandated use of the system beginning July 1, 2016. While the Minnesota legislature funded the effort, a $5 filing fee per envelope (the term used to indicate all documents filed at the same time for the same case), is being charged until sufficient funds have been accumulated to pay for the system’s maintenance, which will probably require at least one year.

The e-filing system is straightforward to use. After establishing an e-file user account, users log on to the system, check the boxes for the type of document being submitted, upload the documents, (e.g., summons, complaints, motion, or subpoena), and pay the filing fee. Court staff monitor the submission queues through the day. Once court staff accept a filing, it moves into the CMS and is available for immediate access by various groups, based on its classification (public, confidential, sealed). Because of the speed at which e-filing makes documents available to the public, part of the mandated training that all senior court staff statewide underwent focused specifically on document security classification. The Minnesota Judicial Branch provided the training online, in-person, at court sites, and in large group settings (district and regional).  

To reduce court reliance on paper and printed documents, the state required court staff to use electronic documents in lieu of paper files. Without these directives, court staff who prefer paper are likely to print documents, thereby undermining the benefits of an electronic file system.

Outcomes and advice
From the Ninth Judicial District’s perspective, the importance of integrating an e-filing solution with a CMS cannot be overstated, according to the Sean Jones, the Itasca County District Court Administrator. And the transition to electronic files led to the implementation of another technology solution: because judges could no longer work with paper files on the bench, they needed an electronic system that would support their District's processes and requirements and integrate with the state-provided CMS. The state CMS was designed to handle case administration; the judges, however, found it cumbersome and unwieldy in the courtroom.

The District identified a solution called Benchworks, designed to replicate the flow of paper files during court proceedings. Benchworks provides easy access to files and services (e.g., calendars) that judges need while on the bench. Benchworks was rolled out six months before the state-mandated e-filing date. This advance implementation gave judges time to get comfortable with Benchworks while still having paper files available.

Communication, education, and strong leadership were fundamental to the new system’s acceptance. The Ninth District spent five years planning for the transition to e-filing and a paperless court. Training and education during that period were critical: for over a year prior to implementation, videos, training modules, and instructor-led training events were offered to court staff, legal service providers and organizations, and the public. Court staff had over 20 hours of training each with particular emphasis on document classification.

The transition to e-filing took place in spring 2016, and it is too soon to fully appreciate its impacts. But the Ninth District's court administrator believes that e-filing has fundamentally changed the way Minnesota courts operate, for the better. Locating files is faster. Multiple people can view and work on a document at the same time. Omitting the “paper shuffle” saves time. E-filing is an essential technology enabling Minnesota to go paperless in its court system.

For further information: Sean Jones, Court Administrator for Itasca County District Court, sean.jones@courts.state.mn.us