Judge Swift says court documents should be available online by October.
By STEPHEN SIFF
VINDICATOR TRUMBULL STAFF
WARREN -- Election night vote totals and your neighbor's property tax bills are already available online. Court filings for disputed wills and other documents will be also.
The Trumbull County Probate Court will soon become the first probate court in the state to accept electronically filed court documents, said Probate Court Judge Thomas A. Swift.
Under the pilot program, launched with special permission from the Ohio Supreme Court, lawyers will be able to e-mail motions, pleadings and requests to the court. Court documents -- always public records -- will be available to be viewed over the Internet. The target date for full implementation of the program is Oct. 1.
Judge Swift said he hoped to be running a paperless court within a matter of years. All documents would be stored electronically, and lawyers and judges who need a paper copy would just print one.
"This is not an experiment," the judge added. "We are confident there is no risk involved."
Elsewhere: Officials at the clerk of courts office, court of common pleas, juvenile court, and other departments are working on a plan to upgrade record keeping software -- at a cost of about $1 million -- which would allow electronic documentation to happen there, too.
The software upgrade will go before county commissioners in a matter of weeks, said Linda Syphert, director of the county data processing department.
She said the department wants to be ready now and doesn't want to wait two or three years before the Ohio Supreme Court issued the e-filing requirement.
Other courts: Some federal courts already allow documents to be submitted by e-mail, and use e-mail, rather than certified mail, to alert lawyers of case developments.
The 11th District Court of Appeals in Warren distributes opinions via its Web page, as well as by traditional means. And since last year, the Trumbull County Clerk of Courts has allowed people to print out forms and check dockets over the Internet -- although there is a lag between the time that a document is filed and when it is listed on the Web site.
Usage of the clerk of courts site has increased from almost nothing in January 2000 to about 9,000 hits a month now, said Michele Scala, the department's office manager. Clerk of Courts Margaret O'Brien said she hoped to make all court documents available over the Web.
"If you can come to the courthouse and look at it now, as far as I'm concerned there is no reason why you can't look at it over the Internet," she added.
The common pleas court administrator agrees.
"If it is a public document and the public has a right to see it, then it is my opinion it should be readily accessible to the public," said Magistrate Anthony Cornicelli. "This will make that kind of document more accessible."
Convenience: Moving the voluminous paperwork out of thick file jackets and onto computer screens will be a convenience for judges, lawyers, and anyone else who has even an occasional interest in what happens in the courthouse. Lawyers will no longer need to send someone to the courthouse to get copies of files, or be constrained by the clerk's 4:30 p.m. closing time.
"It is going to save time and money, it will be more efficient, it will give the public better access to the records," Judge Swift said.
From the bench, judges will be able to use computers to instantly call up case documents, and attorneys will have an easier time getting access to records. Electronic record keeping also will eliminate the occasional unavailability of records when someone else is looking at them, county officials added.