Legislature sees bipartisan push to prohibit online court fees

Absent any legislative intervention, the courts will begin charging $8 per download later this year.

Republican Rep. Kristin Robbins, left, and Democratic Rep. Jamie Becker-Finn, right, have both proposed bills to eliminate online fees. (Minnesota House)

The Minnesota House is considering multiple bills that would prohibit the courts from charging the public for access to online records.

The bipartisan push follows an announcement from the state judicial branch that it would begin charging for documents obtained under its new “Minnesota Court Records Online” system. This new system allows the public to easily search for and download public court documents without having to physically go to a courthouse.

Absent any legislative intervention, the courts will begin charging $8 per download later this year.

Minnesota’s Crime Watch network told Alpha News that they download between 5-15 documents per day, which would cost up to $840 a week, or $43,680 a year, under the new system. That’s obviously not feasible, so independent outlets like Crime Watch would be shut out from online access to the records they depend on for their work.

“We get that there are maintenance costs, but $8 is excessive,” Crime Watch said.

The bipartisan bills, one from Republican Rep. Kristin Robbins and another from Democratic Rep. Jamie Becker-Finn, essentially accomplish the same thing: no online fees.

Becker-Finn’s bill takes things a step further and would limit the fee for obtaining documents in-person to printing and labor costs.

“The funding is not going towards the courts or paying for their IT system. It just goes into the general fund,” Robbins said of the proposed online fee.

The Minnesota Newspapers Association, Minnesota Broadcasters Association, and Minnesota Public Radio all expressed support for the bills.

“Minnesotans should not have to ration their research of court documents based upon their ability to afford access to public information,” John Kavanagh, senior counsel for Minnesota Public Radio, said during a Thursday House Judiciary Committee meeting.

“Attaching fees with no relation to the actual costs to provide this service and which simply go to the General Fund, serve only as an impediment to our work,” he added.

Legal groups have also expressed support for the bills.

“Since court documents have been made viewable and printable online at no charge, I have been able to deliver low fee/no fee services to a number of clients because it was fast and simple to view the critical documents. It has truly changed how I am able to serve new clients. If this structure for viewing and printing court documents changes, I am not going to be able to deliver my services unless the potential client pays me a small retainer,” attorney Patricia Stotzheim said in a letter to the House Judiciary Committee.

Rep. Peggy Scott clarified that the courts likely didn’t want to begin charging for online access to documents but were simply following existing statute.

“I think it’s the right thing to do to just repeal that piece of statute,” she said.