Funding Cuts Send Courts Into Cyber Future

As reported in Governing, dramatic cuts in funding have spurred some state courts to embrace a digital format for court recordings, filings, payments, and other transactions.  Between FY 2009 and FY 2012, 43 state court systems experienced budget cuts, according to the National Center for State Courts (NCSC), as cited by Governing.  To confront their financial woes, state courts are making an effort to provide their services in a more cost-effective format, which sometimes means going paperless.

Take Utah, for example. In the last three fiscal years, the state general fund revenue has dropped by nearly 20 percent. The courts felt that loss through a 9 percent budget cut and a 10 percent reduction in staff, while at the same time experiencing a 16 percent increase in case filings.

Pressed by those fiscal realities, Utah brought its courts into the 21st century. They started by switching to digital audio, instead of professional court recorders, to document all court activity. The civil side of the system has gone completely paperless, with all filings occurring online. Payments are made through online transactions. Warrants are filed through an electronic system. The courts also established an online self-help resource, designed particularly for self-representing litigants, and set specific performance metrics to gauge how they were doing.

Courts have traditionally been largely dependent on paper, so a paperless movement represents a large transition.  The changes have been greeted with positive reactions, both from policymakers and the public.

“There are probably few businesses that rely on paper more than courts,” said Matthew Duran, Chief Justice of the Utah Supreme Court. “So what we’re trying to do is operate without paper.”

Those proactive initiatives were appreciated by a state legislature dealing with a budget crisis that touched on all aspects of state governments. “They shook up the courts like I’ve never seen any corporation, public or private, shake it up,” said Utah State Rep. Eric Hutchings. And the public seems pleased, too: a 2012 survey found 81 percent of the public was confident in the state court system, up from 78 percent in 2006, despite the staff reductions and record-level case filings.

Maryland’s Electronic Court system will create a single Judiciary-wide integrated case management system that will be used by all the courts in the state court system.

Courts will collect, store and process records electronically, and will be able to instantly access complete records as cases travel from District Court to Circuit Court and on to the appellate courts. The new system will ultimately become “paper-on-demand,” that is, paper records will be available when specifically requested.

The Maryland Judiciary has selected a vendor to implement the program and plans a pilot in Anne Arundel County in 2013.

After extensive internal testing to refine MDEC’s operating details, a pilot program will begin in 2013 in Anne Arundel County. Once that pilot is successful, the system will be put into place county by county, with full statewide implementation planned by the end of 2016.

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