The committee behind a pilot program seeking to speed up the time it takes to try simpler civil cases in Dakota County and Duluth recently recommended expanding the program to other state courthouses.
The Expedited Litigation Track (ELT) began in July 2013 in the First and Sixth Judicial Districts with the aim of getting certain civil cases to settlement or trial at a faster pace.
An April report to the Minnesota Supreme Court found that such cases in Dakota County reached disposition 12 days faster than non-ELT cases in the program's first nine months. Those that went to trial did so 46 days quicker, the report said.
"What we found after being in the process for awhile was we as a court do a pretty good job of getting cases to trial within a reasonable period of time," said Justice Christopher Dietzen, who is serving as a liaison to the state's civil justice reform task force.
In Dakota County and Duluth, the ELT applies to select cases — like personal injury, consumer credit or contract disputes — that are not considered complex. Half of Dakota County's cases were assigned to the program and the others became part of a comparison group.
To speed up the process, parties meet in a mandatory early case management conference within the first 45 to 60 days of the case's filing. There, a judge sets scheduling deadlines for discovery or motions to be filed and a specific trial date to be held within four to six months.
Dietzen said early results suggest a reduction in delays often caused by the discovery process or the filing of continuances.
"If you can cut back on those, what you end up doing is cutting time to disposition and reducing the cost of litigation," Dietzen said.
Dakota County District Judge Jerome Abrams, who is supervising the First Judicial District's program, said the ELT can make it easier for people to find lawyers for civil cases that may not offer big financial payout. For instance, he said, more small-business owners or people with relatively small injury claims will have better access to the court system.
"The doors have been opened up," he said.
Abrams was also on the task force that recommended the program in 2011. In the ELT's first nine months, more than 300 cases were assigned to the program — 213 in Dakota County.
"This wasn't something brought about because of a hue and cry from the community," Abrams said. "This is based on us in the court system taking our own initiative to see what we can do to improve civil justice and what can we do to have civil justice be cost-effective."