Court will launch online case filing

Statewide model seen in project to start in spring

December 27, 2006|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,sun reporter

In a pilot project that could become a statewide model, Anne Arundel County is about to begin a shift to electronic filing of Circuit Court cases.

In two years, complaints to start divorce proceedings or allegations that a convicted criminal is violating conditions of probation will be filed with the touch of a few computer keys, eliminating most paper from court cases.

About 23,000 new cases are opened in Anne Arundel County Circuit Court each year. Though some generate few documents, a long-simmering family feud or civil dispute or a retrial of an overturned criminal conviction can generate files that take up several shelves.

Advocates say e-filing is more efficient, because getting papers to the courthouse can be done from computers anywhere, and litigants and their lawyers can instantly access documents online - though some less-than-tech-savvy lawyers maintain it is a judicial plot to drive them crazy.

The same information publicly available in a paper file at the courthouse will be available through court computers for public use. The change will apply only to cases that start as the new system takes effect. Files now on paper will not be converted to electronic files.

"The courthouse, in effect, will be open 24 hours a day," said Circuit Judge Ronald A. Silkworth, who with Clerk of the Court Robert P. Duckworth leads a group creating the electronic filing system.

The court's plan calls for tying electronic filing into its existing network that tracks all cases electronically, Duckworth said. Nearly all circuit courts in Maryland use the same program to track and schedule cases. That program is hooked into a statewide system that allows anyone to search cases online by the names of people involved.

"This will fully test the technology and everything associated with it. We are looking at this as a definitive laboratory," said Frank Broccolina, administrator of the state's courts.

Federal courts and some courts in other states have undertaken similar changes, making case information available on the Web and documents through paid online accounts.

In the past year, Maryland has replaced an antiquated system, in which users had accounts allowing them computer access to basic information on court cases, with a free online search site.

Land records recently have gone electronic. This will be the fourth "e-filing" project in Maryland courts, after those of Prince George's County and Baltimore City circuit courts and Prince George's District Court.

The first, started in 1995 in Prince George's County Circuit Court, was limited to certain types of civil cases. But because e-filing was a little-used option, it never got off the ground.

The second, begun in 2001, is for asbestos litigation in Baltimore City Circuit Court.

The third, opened in 2003, is for landlord-tenant cases in District Court in Prince George's.

People who use the Anne Arundel County Circuit Court will have to adapt to e-filing, officials say.

"Everything will have to be filed that way. If it comes in on paper, we will scan it in. We cannot have two filing systems," Duckworth said.

Court clerks will show people how to use the new network, from how to electronically find and read a document to how to obtain printed copies, Duckworth said.

Lawyers and other users will have to open accounts to file online. The system is being put together by LexisNexis, the information giant that has similar systems, and paid for through user fees.

The charge to file a case from a remote computer is expected to be $6, and LexisNexis will be paid from that, officials said. Most other fees have not been set, but will be when the project opens, likely in March.

The first types of cases that will have to be electronically filed are civil cases that are not divorce, custody or other family matters.

The family cases will come next, then criminal, then juvenile.

The Orphans Court, which runs separately to deal with issues over estates, is not part of the pilot, though Silkworth said he expects his group will look into that.

For more information about e-filing, visit the Anne Arundel County Circuit Court's Web site at

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