Icy roads have recently wreaked havoc in Minnesota, even causing Metro Transit to suspend bus service for a time on Wednesday, Jan. 11. While icy roads are inconvenient for everybody, they can be life-altering for those attempting to get to a courthouse, especially when they are scheduled for an eviction hearing.
Citing a significant backlog of cases since the pandemic-related eviction moratorium was lifted, Hennepin County District Court has resumed in-person hearings for many cases instead of handling them remotely. As a result, some renters have received default judgments and will lose their homes, critics say.
“Whether you show up to court determines whether you or your family will have a home,” Mary Kaczorek, managing attorney at Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid, said. “If you miss court or come too late, the judge issues a default judgment, the landlord gets the writ of recovery, and the sheriff comes out and puts a 24-hour notice on your door. This all happens in a matter of days.”
Bad roads, no child care, and an inability to take time off from work — these are just a few reasons that some Minnesotans are unable get to court. These reasons existed both before and after the height of the global pandemic. But while the global pandemic upended legal processes in Minnesota and across the globe, it also ushered in remote hearings, which eliminated many of these barriers.
“We proved over the last two years that remote court could work, and that defaults went down with remote court,” Kaczorek remarked.
As life continues to return to normal, many hearings are back to being held in person. While this is cause for celebration for some, for others it represents a departure from greater access to justice. This is especially felt in lower-income communities, where things like no transportation or child care can prevent participation in the legal process, according to Kaczorek.
Kaczorek stresses that the access to justice that remote hearings provide is especially important in the eviction context, given both the stakes and how fast they move.
“Evictions are unique from other civil cases in the extremely short timelines at play — only seven to 14 days’ notice before the first appearance,” Kaczorek said, “and only seven days to pay everything that’s owed.”
While someone can file a motion if they miss court, it often happens too late, as the person has already been evicted. “And many folks who do get a writ on their door don’t know their rights and just move,” Kaczorek added. “People don’t know the process and they don’t know they have rights.”
In addition to not having housing, people have the added burden of an eviction record. This record will make it more challenging to find new housing.
Hennepin County District Court release a statement in response to an inquiry from Minnesota lawyer:
“Some hearings in housing court are returning to an in-person format because we have a significant backlog of cases. Many cases have been filed since the lifting of the pandemic-era eviction moratorium. Due to various reasons, we are able to conduct more hearings in person than we are able to handle remotely.”
Kaczorek said that while the court could get through only 20 cases in a three-hour eviction calendar block on Zoom, the court could get through 35 cases if they were held in-person.
While Kaczorek is sympathetic to the court’s need to work through the cases, she disagrees with the solution.
“The referees and clerks at housing court do great work, but they have been given too many cases to handle at one time,” she said. “The policy choice to return to in-person eviction court prioritizes timeliness over fairness.”
Minnesota Lawyer reached out to the Minnesota Multi Housing Association, as well as attorneys who represent Minneapolis landlords, to solicit comment about the Hennepin County court’s policy change, but they declined to comment on the record.
No information about the 1st, 5th, or 8th judicial districts could be ascertained, but all of the other districts in Minnesota have had virtual eviction hearings, according to Kaczorek and legal aid contacts across the state. They said there have been no in-person evictions in Ramsey County.
Kaczorek says that Legal Aid continues to advocate for a hybrid option, with the default being Zoom, as they surmise that most people will want to do the hearing remotely. However, they think that those who choose to be in person — such as those with a disability or limited access to technology — should have the option to do so.
“Fewer defaults means more cases being adjudicated on the merits. This should be the court’s priority — to make sure that families are not getting removed from their home without due process,” Kaczorek declared.