The Times West Virginian

December 11, 2013

E-filing brings W.Va. court system ‘into the 21st century’

Marion County makes history in pilot project

By Debra Minor Wilson
Times West Virginian

FAIRMONT — Marion County made history Tuesday when the first lawsuit was filed on West Virginia’s new e-filing system by a Fairmont attorney.

“It’s like walking on the moon,” said West Virginia Supreme Court Chief Justice Brent Benjamin. “This is a tremendous advance forward. It will only get better.”

Attorney J. Scott Tharp of Tharp, Liotta & Yokum of Fairmont filed the trial case, a civil suit with multiple defendants and multiple plaintiffs.

Currently, legal briefs and motions are filed on paper, and must be taken physically to the circuit clerk’s office at the courthouse to be filed. Now, with e-filing, attorneys may file anyplace, anytime — from the office, at home or even from their iPhone at the local fast food place.

“This will save time and money. It’s a need and a want,” said Circuit Clerk Rhonda Starn. “There will be no more file pulling. It will be at their fingertips wherever there is Internet access.”

This brings the West Virginia court system “into the 21st century,” Benjamin said.

Although this first e-filing went “flawlessly,” he said, he knows there will be “little bumps along the way.”

“We are making baby steps, starting small,” he added. “We will have an additional number of filings as we continue to tweak the system. But I think this will happen a lot faster than everybody thinks.”

“This case will be closely watched from beginning to end” so any possible bugs will be worked out, said Barbara Core, former Marion County circuit clerk and now consultant for On-Line Information Services Inc. of Mobile, Ala. That company will provide the electronic capability to allow electronic filing using Software Systems of Morgantown’s case management system.

Storing files electronically will also free up valuable space, Benjamin said.

“I think in Marion County alone more than 1 million documents have been filed in the last 15 years,” he said. “Times that by 55 counties, and you see how much paper is involved in the legal system. This is a step in the right direction of cutting that down.”

“The Marion County Commission is proud that Marion County is the first to start this,” said county commissioner Butch Tennant. “Eventually paper files will cease to exist, and the clerk’s office will be able to destroy all the paper files once they’ve been scanned into the system.

“This will free up a lot of space in the courthouse for other projects. Citizens of the state will be able to access court records without coming to the courthouse. That’s the big thing.”

“We appreciate the confidence the Supreme Court has in Marion County’s ability to perform this remarkable task,” said Marion County Circuit Judge David R. Janes. “We look forward to everyone catching up with us.”

Benjamin praised Core, saying “this could not have happened without her.”

“This is a great day for the court system,” the former Marion County circuit clerk said.

She said she’d been working to get e-filing to Marion County for about 10 years.

“OK. It’s over. Now we’re ready to move on to Jefferson County,” she said. “The system will be fine tuned and we’ll train more attorneys. Then we’ll be ready to go.”

Next in line, Jefferson County uses the same computer software and already has documents scanned into the system, Benjamin said.

“As long as telephone lines are up, they can continue to do what business they need to get done,” he said. “This will be a tremendous savings to counties. It takes a lot of money to store records. This will take a lot of the recordkeeping off the premises of the courthouse, and that will free up space for other offices. It’s a win-win.

“This takes our court system to the front of court systems in the U.S.,” he said. “Consider where we came from even 10 years ago.

“Marion County already has one of the really good clerk offices in the state,” Benjamin said. “All the offices in the state operated slightly differently until the Supreme Court earlier this year decided to make everything more uniform. This allowed us to begin e-filing. The computer systems they use here are very compatible and easy to switch over and merge with the e-filing system. So Marion County was a natural pick.

“(Marion and Jefferson) counties were ready, willing and able to step up. Once we get the first counties up and online, others will come very quickly after that,” he said.

All 12 pilot counties will be up and running in the coming year, he said. The remaining counties will follow. It will take a while longer for the system to be accessible by media and private citizens, which will be on a subscription basis.

The state Supreme Court has purchased equipment for those counties that have never scanned documents, he said. Eventually, magistrate court records will be added to the system, he said. This will make West Virginia one of three states to do so.

“I’m proud of where our system has gone,” Benjamin said. “We’ve been recognized by the National Center for State Courts and have been asked to host all chief justices at The Greenbrier next year. The judiciary and entire government are stepping up and taking what is rightfully ours ... being at the forefront of America.

“This means a more efficient court system,” Benjamin said. “It won’t cost as much to the taxpayers and people involved. This will allow lawyers more flexibility in how they handle lawsuits.”

Email Debra Minor Wilson at dwilson@timeswv.com.