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Several mental health advocates sent a letter to Minnesota court administrators Monday raising concerns over a policy that holds civil commitment court hearings virtually instead of in person, which the letter's authors say is exacerbating an already-confusing legal process for people with severe mental illnesses.

The letter, sent to State Court Administrator Jeff Shorba, also says the virtual policy may be limiting a person's chance to meet with their attorney during and before these hearings, diminishing their ability to present a defense.

"It is not uncommon for individuals to meet their attorney for the first time at the hearing, and in a remote setting these communications are impossible," reads the letter, signed by leadership for National Alliance for Mental Illness Minnesota (NAMI) and Mental Health Minnesota, along with Andrea Strobel-Ayres, a state ombudsman who oversees civil commitment training. "Individuals should be provided with the best defense and have the right to representation and the right to work with their attorney on such things as testimony, exhibits, and treatment options which may be unfairly limited in the remote setting. Families also worry that in a remote hearing the judge might not see the symptoms or distress as clearly if they were in-person."

Minnesota courts started using remote hearings during the COVID-19 pandemic, initially as an emergency measure designed to keep the courts moving during a time of mandatory isolation.

In March 2023, Minnesota Supreme Court Chief Justice Lorie S. Gildea signed a court order to keep certain hearings virtual unless under special circumstances determined by a judge. Among them is civil commitment — the legal process for committing a mentally ill person to involuntary treatment.

"It needs a bigger discussion, honestly, that involves including people who advocate for people with mental illnesses," Sue Abderholden, executive director of NAMI Minnesota, said in an interview Monday.

The letter says holding these hearings remotely could be negatively affecting people going through this system. Some don't believe they have an illness, the letter says. Others don't understand the court system as well because of their illness. "Additionally, family members may be extremely concerned about their loved one's health and safety and cannot be in the room with the individual to offer comfort or advice if the individual wants that support.

"Having talked with many people who have been committed and their family members, we have seen the impact of being in court in person," the letter continues. "Hearing the information that is presented and understanding the ramifications can at times lead to voluntary treatment. You don't always perceive that same gravity through a video conference."

Lisa Harrison-Hadler, Minnesota ombudsman for Mental Health and Developmental Disabilities, said people who go through civil commitment are often experiencing acute symptoms of mental illness or substance abuse disorder. "The legal process should be structured to afford them every possible opportunity to communicate meaningfully with their attorney, fully understand, and engage in these important hearings involving their civil rights," she said.

The letter's authors say they support telehealth as an option, but they believe that people should be given the choice to appear in person or virtually, suggesting the court adopt an "opt-in" model vs. making it presumptive.

"This is a very serious matter," said Shannah Mulvihill, executive director of Mental Health Minnesota. "We're talking about a person losing some of their basic civil rights."

Shorba planned to forward the letter to a committee that's reviewing in-person, remote and hybrid hearings, said District Court spokesman Kyle Christopherson. He said the committee plans to make recommendations to the courts in June.