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Cost concerns obstruct court’s move toward e-filing

By Peter H. Milliken

Sunday, April 24, 2011

By Peter H. Milliken


E-filing would reduce paper and postage costs and expedite the workflow in Mahoning County Common Pleas Court, according to court officials.

Robert Regula, court administrator, said, however, that acquiring the technology would require a substantial initial investment.

An electronic document-filing system similar to those of the federal government or Montgomery County, which includes the city of Dayton, would cost about $500,000. That would be difficult for financially troubled Mahoning County to afford, Regula said.

“I’d just like to keep plugging along on it, step by step, and eventually, we’ll probably get there,” Regula said.

A notable delay in the current paper-based court record-keeping system, however, is the four-month lag between issuance of court orders and their publication in summary form as docket entries in the court columns of The Daily Legal News and The Vindicator.

But Anthony Vivo, clerk of courts, said court entries are scanned in right away. The public and attorneys can then call that image up and read it.

The one- and two-line summaries, which used to be done by a few clerks, are now done by one clerk because of manpower shortages in the office.

The one clerk can take weeks — and sometimes months after the actual entry is filed — to prepare the summaries, Vivo said. With so many civil cases, Vivo said, it takes a longer time to prepare those summaries.

Currently, court orders from November are still appearing in the daily issues of the publications.

In one case, a man called The Vindicator to complain that a four-month-old docket entry concerning his son recently appeared in the paper, but his son had died before Christmas.

Judge Maureen A. Sweeney, the court’s administrative judge, said such a long lag time is unacceptable, however. She thinks such delays can be alleviated by introducing more technology into the court system.

“The best we can do is try to implement the e-filing, which I think would definitely speed everything up,” Judge Sweeney said.

The judge said she favors installing an electronic document filing system that would allow lawyers to file motions, judges and magistrates to file orders, and parties to cases to be notified of filings and events, all at the touch of a button.

But before the judges can authorize that, she said the judges need to consider specific proposals for such a system and ways to pay for it, including county funds and user access fees.

Those filing civil lawsuits already pay $23 within each filing fee toward computer and other technology.

Electronic filing would expedite the clerk of courts’ work and improve the productivity of the clerk’s office by reducing staff hours devoted to processing and mailing of paper documents, said Kathi McNabb Welsh, chief deputy clerk of courts. “Mailing of paper documents is cumbersome,” she said.

“Every year, my goal is to try to increase our reliance on technology,” Welsh said.

Overall efficiency improvements from e-filing would expedite preparation of docket entries for the newspapers, she added.

“We’re looking into it right now, and I think, in the long run, it would definitely save money, with all the postage you’d save and the paper and everything else,” Judge Sweeney said.

“We’re working toward it, and it’s something that we want to see happen,” she said. “We’ll find a way” to afford it, she added.

“As we get more and more technology, we become more and more efficient,” said Vivo. He said, however, he believes the court’s duty is to serve both those with and those without computers.

Regula said the court clerk’s office could benefit from having increased scanning capacity to image documents into its Courtview computer system, which is available via the Internet.

The clerk’s office, which got its first imaging scanner about four years ago, has only two document-imaging scanners: one in regular use and one backup unit. Welsh said she could use at least 10 desktop scanners.

“This office would love to scan everything,” including motion filings by lawyers, Welsh said. Only court orders and indictments are now routinely scanned, she said.

The court’s official legal notification methods are Courtview, The Daily Legal News, and the notices it sends through the mail to lawyers and parties in cases, Welsh said.

Last year, the clerk of courts spent $165,000 on postage and $5,329 on office paper. The clerk’s total budget was $1.5 million last year and is $1.6 million this year.

By the end of this year, the clerk’s office hopes to save money and increase efficiency by installing a system to electronically record signatures acknowledging receipt of notices sent by certified mail, rather than relying on the traditional green signature cards, Welsh said.

“I look at this as a path — as a journey that we’re on, and, ultimately the destination would be e-filing,” Welsh said of technological advancements. Intermediate steps would include electronic certified-mail signature recording, acquiring additional imaging scanners, and emailing of court orders to lawyers, she said.

Vivo said his office has been burdened with all his staff and management having to take 18 unpaid furlough days in 2009 and 2010 combined, reducing staff hours in his office by 5 percent due to the county’s budget constraints.

“We all have to have a little patience in these difficult economic times,” Judge Lou A. D’Apolito said, referring to any delays caused by staffing shortages.

Due to the recession and housing slump, the annual number of foreclosures has ranged from 1,732 to 1,945 in the last five years, Welsh said.

Welsh said her first record-keeping priority regarding posting of court orders is to have them noted as judgment entries and imaged into Courtview within five working days.

Typing of summaries of those entries on Courtview and on lists prepared as a courtesy to The Daily Legal News and The Vindicator occurs after the initial Courtview entries and images are made, she said.

“No one is turned away at the counter,” Vivo said, adding that deputy clerks give top priority to people seeking civil protection orders in stalking and harassment cases.

Civil protection orders, which require no filing fee, have increased steadily every year from 672 in 2006 to 860 last year. Welsh said it appears that police are increasingly urging alleged victims of stalking and harassment to seek them.

Vivo’s office processes all criminal, civil and domestic relations cases in the common pleas court, together with all criminal, traffic and civil cases in the area courts in Boardman, Canfield, Austintown and Sebring. Vivo’s office also operates the auto title department at the county’s Southside Annex on Market Street.

“We handle all the money that goes in and out of the courts” in the form of deposits, bonds, filing fees, fines and court costs, Vivo noted. “We’re the hub of the criminal justice system.”