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Benchmarks: Journal of the New York State Unified Court System

Summer 2006

On-Line Access to Court Records Tested In Two Counties

TWO PILOT PROJECTS ARE ABOUT TO get underway to explore the technological, operational and privacy issues raised by public access to court files on the Internet.

Each pilot will yield important lessons as to how New York’s 62 counties will eventually move to on-line access to court records.
Chosen for their different demographics, New York and Broome counties have been designated as pilot sites for putting court records on-line. The pilots differ in scope and approach. One county is a world financial capital with approximately 50,000 new Supreme Court civil case filings a year, including highly complex commercial matters. The other is an upstate county with a population of just over 200,000 and fewer than 2,000 new civil filings each year. Each pilot will yield important lessons as to how New York’s 62 counties will eventually move to on-line access to court records.

The pilots are an outgrowth of the recommendations of the Commission on Public Access to Court Records, whose 2004 report (www.nycourts.gov/ip/publicaccess/) concluded that “the rules and conditions of public access to court case records should be the same whether those records are made available in paper form at the courthouse or electronically over the Internet.” Turning this premise into reality presents challenges to both large and small counties.

The New York County Pilot
The New York County Supreme Court, Civil Branch, is an ideal pilot location because of its significant experience in scanning and posting decisions and orders to the Internet, begun in 1997-98. County Clerk Norman Goodman, a member of the Commission on Public Access to Court Records, began scanning judgments in 1999 and pleadings in 2004. Together, they scan approximately 98,000 documents annually.

These documents are available electronically to judges and court and county clerk personnel through Supreme Court Records On-Line Library (SCROLL), a computer application developed by Associate LAN (Local Area Network) Administrator Reginald Bouchereau of the court’s Management Information Services office, with Statewide Coordinator of Electronic Filing Jeffrey Carucci’s assistance on design and format.

SCROLL also provides — all from a single point of entry — access to the county clerk’s minute books (a record of all filings in that office) and the court’s case-management information. SCROLL allows judges and court personnel to review a pleading or prior decision, look up the next scheduled appearance or obtain other case information without requisitioning the physical case file.

As part of the pilot, which begins in September, two significant changes to this system are being implemented. First, SCROLL is being made available to the public through the Unified Court System (UCS) Web site. Second, scanned documents will include preliminary conference and other case-management orders, requests for judicial intervention, notes of issue, orders to show cause and notices of motion. Due to volume, affidavits, exhibits and other supporting motion papers will not be scanned.

As a result, attorneys and members of the public will have remote access to a “virtual” file of the court’s civil cases. Access will be without fee or the need for a password or other identification.

Decisions and orders in matrimonial and Mental Hygiene Law Article 81 guardianship cases will not be posted to the Internet, nor, of course, will decisions and orders where the case file or a portion thereof has been sealed by court order.

To protect privacy interests relating to scanned documents, the court has provided guidelines for litigants and attorneys, cautioning them to omit personal information, such as Social Security numbers, names of minor children and financial account numbers, from court filings. There is also a mechanism for requesting that a court record be kept off the Internet for good cause.

“We believe this project will transform the ancient, traditional route of access to our court records, which for centuries has required a trip to our county clerk’s office,” the court’s First Deputy Chief Clerk Robert C. Meade, Esq., said. “We are, for the first time, making a vast volume of our records accessible on the Internet. Attorneys will have access to a wealth of information about their cases without leaving their offices. We are also enhancing general public awareness of the workings of our system of justice.”

The Broome County Pilot
Broome County’s public-access pilot gets underway this summer. This pilot also will pull information from Supreme and County Courts and the county clerk and make it available electronically to the public along with scanned images of documents in the court file.

While Broome County has fewer filings, its pilot goes beyond the New York County project in two respects. First, it includes criminal records as well as civil records. Criminal case records (except information already not public) will be available to the public over the Internet once the case is resolved at the trial level. Second, the entire file in civil cases, including supporting motion papers, will be scanned and made available.

Case information and records will be available initially through the county clerk’s Web site (www.gobroomecounty.com/clerk or www.gobcclerk.com). It will eventually be available through the UCS Web site as well.

Unlike the New York County pilot, attorneys and members of the public will need an account and password to access court records.

In addition to providing Internet access, the Broome project seeks to reduce duplicate data-entry and increase efficiency by allowing data-sharing between the courts and the county clerk’s office. Their respective staff will be able to take advantage of internal electronic access to records and case information, reducing the need to send paper records back and forth between chambers and the county clerk’s office. This will be especially helpful for those judges whose chambers are located outside the county.

Guidelines for litigants and attorneys regarding preparation of documents and exclusion of sensitive information will be similar to those of the New York County project. “There’s a good deal of work going on in terms of redacting information that should not be released to the public, and that’s a work in progress,” according to Michael P. Husar, Chief Clerk of Broome’s Supreme and County Courts.

The project will be governed by formal rules established by administrative order. Representatives from the county’s civil and criminal bar have participated in the development of the project and its guidelines.

Deputy Chief Administrative Judge for Court Operations and Planning Judy Harris Kluger and OCA Chief of Operations Ron Younkins are overseeing the implementation of the court system’s efforts to provide public access to court records on-line.

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