Regions Adopt Electronic Court Records Systems

5 min read
  • Government
  • Information Technology
  • Document & Records Management

The law has traditionally lagged behind technology. The Supreme Court, for example, just announced in January of this year that it intended to put its files online, a project that is expected to be completed next year. Similarly, the Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER) court database still looks much like it did when it was first designed in the early 2000s. (And, to make matters worse, the system has been deleting files as they age.)

Like many organizations, the Idaho Judicial Branch converted from its legacy computer system only when it was end-of-lifed by its vendor and they had no choice. But the statewide department is in the process of converting the entire state into a single system that will allow anyone to file court records electronically, a project that should be complete by the end of 2018.

Electronic court records, and access to them, have been a major source of contention. Some states have awarded case law access to private companies, while the cost of gaining access to federal court records has been an issue for years.

The new electronic court records system will provide full copies of documents. “Idaho currently has an online repository where state, criminal and civil records can be found, but the repository only shows a brief description of activity, filings and court dates in each case,” explains Ryan Thorne in the Idaho Mountain Express. “Those who want to access specific court records must pay for emailed or faxed copies or visit courthouses to look at physical files.”

The existing system for most of Idaho’s courts is the 26-year-old Idaho Statewide Trial Court Automated System (iSTARS), writes Benton Alexander Smith in the Idaho Business Review. “Each county has its own system, which makes it difficult for counties to share files, and requires each county to manage its own database,” he writes. The current system gets 200,000 hits per day.

Idaho’s Supreme Court ordered the new iCourt system, which is expected to cost $21.5 million, in 2013, and it was first implemented in Twin Falls County in June, 2015. In August, it was implemented in Ada County, the most populous of the state’s 44 counties. Electronic filing became mandatory for criminal cases the first week of September, and Ada County civil judges began to use electronic court files. By October 3, state and party attorneys will be required to submit electronic filings, Thorne writes.

A few categories of documents, ranging from wills to federally restricted storage such as images of child pornography, must still be submitted on paper.

Counties in Idaho’s 4th and 5th judicial districts are scheduled to implement the system on April 3, 2017, with the rest of Southwest Idaho scheduled for fall 2017. Northern Idaho follows in spring, 2018, while eastern Idaho will complete the project in fall, 2018. More than 1,700 cases are filed daily in the state.

“Once the complete system has been deployed to all counties, it will provide improved access to electronic court records, hearing schedules, court documents, e-filing and more,” reports the iCourt state website that tracks the project. “This new system will also provide tools to improve business practices amongst justice partners by providing around-the-clock access to court information, reduce costs from handling and storing paper files, streamline court processes, and deliver better information for judicial decision-making.”

To submit electronic court records, attorneys and other personnel must turn them in as text-searchable PDFs of less than 25 megabytes. People who are representing themselves can use the electronic system but are not required to do so. Signatures can be submitted either by typing /s/ before typing the name, or by using a scan of a real signature.

One loose end the state still needs to tie up is to what degree the general public will be able to get copies of electronic court records. Because the electronic court records contain personally identifiable information such as addresses and Social Security numbers, some people are concerned about the security of these records. For that reason, some states charge for electronic court records. But at the same time, charging for electronic court records makes the system less accessible to people, particularly the poor. The general public should have access to the court records by 2018, Thorne writes, while Smith adds that the personally identifiable information will be redacted.

Idaho isn’t alone in their transition to electronic case files. In Tompkins County, NY, court officials have adopted digital processes as a part of a county-wide move to a shared service enterprise content management repository that hosts electronic records for participating villages, towns, and cities. The Tompkins County court handles approximately 1,400 civil cases and 4,500 criminal cases a year. Before going digital, it could take hours for law clerks and legal secretaries to find and retrieve pertinent records. Now the court can more efficiently process court case files between departments, and judges have access to case files while in court from their iPads.

According to The Ithaca Voice, the project has saved the municipalities involved more than $328,000 annually; it ultimately saved the county $5.5 million through automation of various business processes and digitizing of 9,000 boxes of records in its records center.

Similarly, in Shiawassee County, MI, the prosecutor’s office expanded its records management system, automating up to 70 steps involved in turning police arrest records into formal charging documents that will stand the scrutiny of defense lawyers in court.

“The new software system now automates dozens of operations police and prosecutors previously did by hand,” writes Shiawassee County Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Daniel J. Nees in Trends in State Courts.

Back in Idaho, judges said they like the new system. Records for each judge’s cases for the day are downloaded so the judges will have access to them in the event of a power failure. One Twin Falls judge said he had seen only five paper court files since the system went live.

Idaho courts—such as Blaine County, the location of Sun Valley—are also taking this opportunity to look at their processes, both to ensure that they comply with the law and to make sure that each county follows the same procedure, Thorne explains. Implementing the system is different between the larger counties—which have more staff and could have specific people for specific jobs—and the smaller counties, which may have people performing multiple jobs, he writes. In fact, while Ada County staff were reportedly concerned that their jobs would be eliminated with the system, the county may actually need to hire more staff, he adds.

Meanwhile, the Ada County Courthouse is making plans for what it might do with the space that will be freed up when all the paper files are no longer required. “Once officials are convinced that the digital storage system is secure and reliable, several storage rooms now used for paper case files may become courtrooms or office space,” Smith writes.

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