By Vicki Smith
A centralized electronic filing system for West Virginia’s circuit clerks could prevent mistakes and improve public access to court documents, but the head of the West Virginia Press Association expects many people will still have to visit courthouses in person for copies of lawsuits, motions and rulings.
The state’s high court is launching a pilot project in 14 counties as it tries to fix widespread problems with record-keeping that caused the mistaken release of a kidnapping suspect in Kanawha County this year.
But Don Smith, executive director of the state’s newspaper association, cited West Virginia’s low levels of computer ownership and broadband access — falling near the bottom in the country — and said people will likely have to continue depending on reporters to keep them informed.
A federal study found in July that about 64 percent of West Virginia homes have a computer, the second-lowest percentage in the U.S. Less than 60 percent subscribe to high-speed Internet; 3 percent still rely on dial-up connections through phones.
“The concept of greater access, we always support,” Smith said. “Workability is always the issue in West Virginia.”
Smith said online access could help journalists trying to gather records from far-flung locations, but the value will depend on how much it costs and how much it delivers.
Prices are still being worked out, but Steve Canterbury, administrative director for the state Supreme Court, said any document that is a public record could be downloaded. Those that have been sealed by a judge will remain off-limits, as will confidential information such as judges’ notes.
The pilot project will, among other things, require all clerks to use a universal numbering system, not one of their own devising.
In March, kidnapping suspect Jeremy Carter was released from the South Central Regional Jail on an order that Kanawha County Circuit Judge Carrie Webster said she didn’t mean to issue. She was trying to dismiss a related but separate motion for a psychiatric evaluation.
Investigators found that the clerk’s office had changed case numbers in keeping with local practice that the report said “is not supported or authorized by statute, court rule or even a provision of the Circuit Court Clerk’s Manual.”
When Webster learned of the erroneous release, she ordered the suspect re-arrested.
Canterbury said that Webster’s actions didn’t merit a complaint to the office of disciplinary counsel and that the goal of clearing her docket of extraneous matters was laudable.
Kanawha’s system was flawed, Canterbury said, but it was not unique to the state’s largest county. The state Supreme Court had already been working on a universal filing system, he said, and Webster’s case merely accelerated the timeline by about six months.
The four vendors currently serving the state’s 55 counties will eventually be replaced by one, Software Systems of Morgantown, which will partner with On-Line Information Services of Mobile, Ala. They’ll work with the courts and the State Bar to train lawyers before e-filing becomes mandatory.
Canterbury says the goal is to have WVeFile online by the end of 2015.
The state will absorb conversion costs. Canterbury said WVeFile will save counties money because they won’t have to pay licensing and maintenance fees or fund upgrades to hardware, software and wiring, and they’ll use far less paper.
In time, boxes will be unpacked and scanned into electronic documents that are searchable by key words. The paper will be reviewed by archivists to ensure historically significant documents aren’t lost, and most will be destroyed once they’ve been digitally scanned and backed up for preservation.
The pilot project is expected to cost between $500,000 and $700,000, Canterbury said, depending up on the condition of the hardware currently in place. Combined with other upfront costs, he said, WVeFile is likely to cost “a couple million dollars.”
In Alabama, one of the few states with a statewide e-filing system, court records are publicly accessible under a fee structure. The base price for Alacourt access is $84 a month for a single user, and fees increase with the number of account users and searches. Although Alacourt doesn’t offer one-day access, the public can search a single name for $9.99.
Canterbury said an important part of West Virginia’s system is that users will be able to print documents free of charge. State law requires circuit clerks to charge $1 a page for copies picked up in the office and $2 a page for faxes.
Lawyers won’t pay filing fees during the pilot project, Canterbury said. The Supreme Court could decide to keep the service free for attorneys or set rates once they create a fee structure for the public.
While the court needs to recoup the investment, Canterbury said, it also wants the system to be affordable.
The Press Association says it supports all efforts to make government more transparent and public records more accessible
“A reasonable flat fee for unlimited 24-hour access, with no additional charges for downloading, etc., certainly sounds like a workable concept, but ‘reasonable’ is strictly tied to the value of the access,” Smith said. “If most detailed inquiries would still require a visit to the courthouse, then there is little value for the media, or probably the public.”