E-filing system launched for 14 counties - Beckley, Bluefield & Lewisburg News, Weather, Sports

E-filing system launched for 14 counties

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LINDA HARRIS / The State Journal LINDA HARRIS / The State Journal
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Every West Virginia county has one: A room where old circuit court files are boxed up and filed away so they can be retrieved if they're ever needed.

With space at a premium in so many county courthouses, the storage area may not even be in the same building, so when a particular file is needed a clerk often has to go off-site to retrieve it.

“Ours is in a building across the street, in the basement area,” said Jefferson County Clerk Laura Storm. “(For) any files that are approximately five years old or older, we have to go across the street with two sets of keys and a badge just to get through the doors. ... It's a pain.”

It's an inefficient, cost-prohibitive recordkeeping system that, thankfully, is being fixed: Through a directive from the Supreme Court of Appeals, 14 West Virginia counties are already on the road to a unified e-filing system. Once the kinks in those counties are worked out, the rest will follow suit.

So far, only Marion County has the ability to accept civil cases electronically, though Jefferson County will be ready for civil case e-filing in the next few weeks. Berkeley, Braxton, Cabell, Hampshire, Harrison, Lewis, Lincoln, Morgan, Ohio, Randolph, Upshur and Wood counties also are working toward that goal.

But Matt Arrowood, director of Circuit Clerk Services for the Supreme Court, said e-filing capability is only part of the formula: They also have to get old cases scanned in properly, and the system will have to be searchable from any computer terminal.

Getting old cases scanned and into electronic format is labor intensive, he said.

“Electronic filing is one component; the other side is circuit court case management,” he said. “We need both to work. There's a lot of conversion between the old system and the new, but we hope to be up and running within next year and a half to two years.”

Arrowood said the counties will use an operating system developed by Morgantown-based Software Systems Inc. E-filing and e-billing will be provided by On-Line Information Services Inc. of Mobile, Alabama.

“When our new electronic filing system is fully implemented, West Virginia's judicial system will be among the most advanced and efficient systems in the country,” Justice Brent Benjamin said. “By facilitating the filing and transmission of documents with the court and between the parties to legal actions, West Virginia's e-filing system ensures that our county clerks can manage lawsuits without the many physical limitations and high costs currently associated with a traditional paper-based system.”

It was during Benjamin's term as chief justice that unified filing and case management was mandated by the court after “erroneous orders ... complicated by some processing mistakes” led to the release of a man charged in Kanawha County with trying to kidnap a child in South Charleston before his case had even been adjudicated.

Though the man was re-arrested soon after his release, the resulting furor prompted the high court to require the state's 55 circuit clerks to adopt a unified case management system.

The Supreme Court is picking up the tab for implementing the new system in the 14 test counties. Arrowood said it's too soon to say what the final price tag will be.

He said many counties had already begun scanning records, but they weren't using the Software Systems operating program. The work they did complete has to be converted to the Software Systems format, and no one knows yet how much that will cost.

“We really don't have the figures yet,” he said. “It's all very fluid, and I don't feel comfortable making an estimation.

“We won't really know how much it's all going to cost until we actually convert Ohio and Hampshire counties.”

Eventually, when enough records have been scanned in and stored in a statewide “vault,” interested parties will be able to search for and retrieve public court documents from any computer.

Traditional paper filing will still be available in each clerk's office, and the public will be able to search records there for free. E-filing is also free.

But those opting for the convenience of retrieving court records when they're away on business, vacation or simply home with their families will have to pay for a monthly subscription.

“I always say it's like Netflix, you can watch the same movie over and over,” Arrowood said. “As long as you pay your subscription fee, you can download and view it as many times as you want.”

He said the high court wants the system to ultimately pay for itself.

“We don't want the citizens of West Virginia to pay for this system, we want it to pay for itself,” he said. “We also want to give attorneys the best access possible at a good rate, and we think this is a fair system.”

He figures they easily have 300,000 to 400,000 records already in the data vault, “but that's very small, considering what we will have” when all 55 counties have converted to the new system.

“The benefits for West Virginia are dramatic,” Benjamin said. “Filings may be done faster and without the costs associated with a courthouse visit. A lawyer need not even leave his or her office to file a lawsuit, file documents in a legal action, or review court records. Furthermore, information in a case will be more up-to-date, will be subject to automatic tracking, and will be quicker to retrieve with less possibility for misfiles.

“And, with e-filing, more than one person at a time may review case information online — something not currently possible with a single paper file,” he added. “For West Virginia's counties, important courthouse space currently taken up by boxes of documents can now be re-tasked for other, more productive, purposes.

“As we are already seeing in Marion County, the first county to implement e-filing, the benefits to West Virginia are many.”

Arrowood said the legal community is eager to get the system fully online and searchable.

“Initially there was some pushback (because) it changed and people don't like change,” he said. “But once they see the system and how it can benefit them, they're very eager. That goes for judges, attorneys and clerks.”

Marion County Chief Deputy Robin Tucker said e-filing isn't mandatory, but the office staff loves it when attorneys use it. “Once an attorney files a case (electronically), all the documents automatically flow into the case management system,” she said. “Our clerks are happy about it, they don't have to scan them in manually and docket them like they do with a paper file. But it's not mandatory.”

While Jefferson County will be second in the state to adopt e-filing for civil cases, Storm said they'll be the first in the state to do family court filings via computer. Due to the different forms that must be created and entered in the system that's still several months away, but Storm said she likes the idea of Jefferson County leading the way with family court.

“My entire office is so excited, they're ready,” she said. “They want to get rid of paper yesterday. It's a win-win for every person that needs access to the court system, there are no losers.

“Judges, court staff, pro se litigants, attorneys and reporters — everybody will have access to the same information throughout the state. It makes all courts more accessible.”

 

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