Government and Technology

Electronic court records could cut costs, but privacy is a concern

Ottawa has electronic system, but it’s woefully underused.

March 29, 2013
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LANSING — To save time and money, a bipartisan group of legislators wants to make more court records digitally accessible. The legislation would reduce the time it takes to access them and therefore reduce court costs, said Rep. David Rutledge, D-Ypsilanti.

The proposals would let digital and electronic records be used as evidence instead of requiring the originals.

“This is part of modernizing the court system,” Rutledge said. “It has an opportunity to speed things up in the system and thereby save taxpayer dollars.”

Some states digitize all their court records, while others are in the process of doing so, reducing costs for litigants as well as taxpayers, said Seth Andersen, executive director of the American Judicature Society in Des Moines, Iowa.

Michigan has digital programs in several counties including Ottawa, Oakland and Macomb.

Most federal courts have used digital filing for years, Andersen said, but many states are exploring the change only now as a response to budget cuts.

“When you move to an e-filing system, it is a big investment up front,” he said. “But it ends up paying for itself because it requires a smaller staff to manage and it makes everything more accessible. It’s been one part efficiency and one part budget savings.”

The Ottawa County District Court has offered electronic filing since 2011, but so far has only had one submission, said Lori Catalino, the court administrator in Holland. She attributed the lack of use to inefficient publicity of the changes.

Catalino said her court is attempting to make more attorneys aware of the electronic filing system, particularly those dealing with credit collection agencies in Metro Detroit.

Collections agencies send representatives across the state to file garnishment suits when county residents default on debts. Those agencies also file income tax garnishments en masse between August and October each year, filling out and mailing 3,500 to 5,000 pages of paperwork at a time.

Filed traditionally, each piece of paper must be processed, signed, scanned into the system and then mailed back, Catalino said — a process that could be simplified by being submitted digitally.

“There’s not all of the time delay getting it by mail, hand-filling out those garnishments, then returning them by mail,” she said. “Where you see successful e-filing systems are in the counties where it is mandated.”

Colorado was the first state to change to electronic filing in 2002, completing most of the process by 2009, said Jim McMillan, principal court management consultant for the National Center for State Courts in Virginia. Now 35 states have e-filing systems underway.

Going digital also can reduce the cost of supplies such as paper, which McMillan said provides an ecological saving.

“You’re five times cheaper than dealing with any type of paper,” McMillan said. “If you go completely electronic, it’s 11 cents a page when everything is filed electronically, compared to 69 cents if it’s not.”

Digital storage allows courts to share documents and enables lawyers, litigants and the public to access them without going to the courthouse or hiring a courier service, McMillan said.

The legislation would make using digital court records more common, but would not require courts to make the switch.

For example, Mecosta County District Court has no electronic filing system, nor does it plan on implementing one in the near future, court administrator Steve DeLaney said.

DeLaney said electronic filing might be the future, but it certainly isn’t in the present because county officials don’t want to invest money into a change. “We’re fine with the system we have now,” he said.

Andersen said storing court information digitally, especially if it’s available to the public on the Internet, does provide challenges, particularly with disclosure of personal information.

“They have to be looking at security risks of everyone involved,” he said. “If you put everything on the Internet, everyone who’s a party to the case can access it, which could be a problem with, for example, a sexual assault case.

“There’s always a concern about releasing any kind of information that could be confidential.”

The legislation is in the House Judiciary Committee. Other sponsors include Reps. Bradford Jacobsen, R-Oxford; Marilyn Lane, D-Fraser; and Amanda Price, R-Park Township.

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