By Peter H. Milliken
In the not-too-distant future, lawyers may be able to file suits in Mahoning County courts from computer keyboards in their offices or homes.
Also being explored in those courts is the possibility of online credit-card payments of fines and court costs.
A committee of county court and information-technology officials has recommended the county advertise for proposals for an electronic court-document filing system that would be compatible with the current Courtview electronic docket.
The system would be designed to serve both the county common pleas court and the area courts in Austintown, Canfield, Boardman and Sebring, said Kathi McNabb Welsh, chief deputy clerk of courts.
The six-member panel, known as the Documents Assessment and Recommendations Committee, estimated that it will take less than two months to write the proposal for the new system, then about three months to advertise for a vendor and receive and evaluate responses from potential vendors, followed by 12 to 18 months to put the system in operation.
This means the system could be operating 17 to 23 months from now, Welsh said.
When the system is installed, lawyers will be able to file lawsuits electronically from their offices or homes by merely pushing a series of buttons on their computers, and use credit cards to pay filing fees, said Judge John M. Durkin, presiding and administrative judge of Mahoning County Common Pleas Court.
“We are on the ground-floor of something that I think is going to improve the justice system exponentially,” Judge Durkin said.
Although electronic document-filing is mandatory in the federal courts, Judge Durkin noted that only a few Ohio counties now have e-filing in their court systems.
As soon as the clerk of courts office screens them as to form and the case they belong to, the electronic documents can be made available for public viewing unless a judge orders them sealed, Welsh said.
Currently, except for electronic state tax-lien filings, the Mahoning County common pleas and area courts accept only paper documents.
The study committee said it must explore ways to pay for the electronic filing system through court filing fees or other funds.
Robert Regula, common pleas court administrator, said the courts have set aside about $600,000, derived from filing fees, fines and court-cost payments to be used toward an e-filing system.
Neither Regula nor Welsh, who are study-committee members, could give an estimate of the new system’s cost.
“It’s going to make our court more efficient,” Judge Durkin said. E-filing of complaints allows the court assignment office and judges to immediately begin tracking the complaints by computer, Judge Durkin explained.
By expediting document filing and posting, Regula said the new system could speed up the court docket.
“Once a party files something, a complaint, a motion, it’ll pretty much be on the court’s plate right then and there,” Regula said.
“There’ll be a quicker turnaround in terms of rulings and decisions based on information being right there at your fingertips once filed,” he added.
The advantages of e-filing include “a far greater public access” to court documents and “the ability to move documents through the court system at greater efficiency and greater speed,” Welsh said.
“Documents will get to the courts faster,” she said, adding that e-filing will reduce paper use and photocopying.
During a recent Mahoning Valley appearance, Jonathan Hollingsworth of Dayton, president of the Ohio State Bar Association, said electronic filing, which delivers documents in seconds, is a major time-saver for lawyers because it eliminates the need for them to hand-deliver or mail documents to courts, which may be geographically far away from them.
Paper files are vulnerable to loss, misfiling and fire and water damage. The current common pleas court document microfilming process is running years behind the paper filings, the study panel said.
Area court documents are not being microfilmed here because common pleas court is getting microfilming priority, said Colleen Ingram, area court administrator.
Beyond e-filing, court officials also are exploring the possibility of an online acceptance of fine and court cost payments by credit card, which would improve convenience for the public and collection of those monies, Welsh said.
The common pleas and area courts do not now accept payments by credit card.
“People can’t believe we’re that archaic,” Ingram said, noting that many callers to her courts find it difficult to understand why credit cards can’t be accepted there. “They’re shocked,” said Ingram, who is also a member of the technology study committee.
“A lot of people use the interstate [highways] and they might be from California, and they get the [traffic] ticket. ... They just want to pay it [the fine] over the Internet or give a credit-card number, and we can’t do that. It has to be cash, or a check or a money order,” Ingram added.