Shifting to Paperless:
Maryland courts go green
Imagine court cases without stacks of paper and files that don’t need a filing cabinet. The Maryland Judiciary has been laying the groundwork to go ‘paperless’ at every court level throughout the state.
Over the next few years, the Maryland Judiciary plans to change the way courts receive, send and keep forms, filings and case records—no more paper unless there’s a specific request. Or, in other words, there will be paper on demand. Courts will be able to instantly access complete records as cases travel from District Court to Circuit Court and on to the appellate courts. Cases can be filed, and files can be viewed, anywhere and at any time, with a keystroke rather than a trip to the courthouse.
“Today, you have to go to court and ask to see a paper file,” said Chief Judge Ben C. Clyburn of the District Court of Maryland. “Soon, you’ll be able to see the file online instead. In fact, there won’t even be a paper file.” Judge Clyburn is leading the advisory committee that is working to develop and implement the Maryland Electronic Courts initiative, known as MDEC. The overall goals for this initiative are to increase access to justice in Maryland courts, improve public safety, decrease costs and improve efficiency and timeliness.
The new electronic case management system should make it easier to file lawsuits and keep track of cases within any part of the court system. It will also help Maryland’s courts save on storage costs because there won’t be those staggering stacks of paper anymore. Critical records will be safer and not subject to destruction from disasters like fires or floods, or even simply misfiling or misplacing of paper.
Many other states have been going electronic, but no court system has completely done away with paper, and neither will Maryland. Plans call for keeping records and doing business electronically, and using paper only when it's requested. If lawyers and people representing themselves want to file paper, they will be able to, and court clerks will digitize the documents. There are also times when papers are necessary, such as protection orders that people need to carry with them. “There will always be some paper,” Judge Clyburn said.
In going to this new system, the courts are simply responding to and are even a little bit behind the general trend, Judge Clyburn explained. “What’s happening in society today? People are shopping, paying bills, even dating online. They’re doing everything online except for matters that have to do with our courts,” he said. “Not only are people accustomed to online services, but they are demanding them more and more.”
Advantages of going paperless
The advantages of statewide electronic case management are:
Improved public safety. As an example, Judge Clyburn described a common event: “When a judge issues a bench warrant that calls for an immediate arrest, that warrant goes into the system and can literally sit on someone’s desk.” Under the new system, “when a judge e-signs a warrant and pushes a button, the warrant will go directly to law enforcement, which can react a lot faster. We believe this system can save lives.”
Efficiency. The courts should be able to handle more work without more resources. Currently, there are eight separate case management systems throughout the state, and those systems don't talk to each other. With this new technology, courts will be able to communicate with each other, streamline court processes and expedite the more than two million cases filed with the Judiciary each year. The new system will also trim handling and mailing costs, which can result in substantial savings. “In terms of the paper we send out each day, the District Court is the largest user of the U.S. Postal Service in Maryland,” Judge Clyburn emphasized.
Speed. When the ‘paperwork’ moves faster, so can cases, which can save money for litigants, as well. The new system will allow courts to capture and relay real-time data.
Consolidation. All files from a case are in one place. “As a judge, I will be able to see it all, and that’s a benefit for everyone involved in a case,” Judge Clyburn said.
Access. Eventually, the new coordinated system will provide litigants and members of the bar with 24/7 access to court case records, Judge Clyburn said.
Timeliness. The courts are at the center of the criminal justice system. The new system will allow the Judiciary to use new standard ways of providing information to and receiving information from federal, state and local justice partner agencies electronically as things happen. This is called interoperability and it means that courts will be able to receive up-to-the-minute information on whether a warrant or domestic violence order has been served, or whether a defendant has been released from a detention center or is in transit to the court. Likewise, courts can notify police officers when a hearing they were scheduled to attend has been postponed or cancelled. Judicial Information Systems (JIS) is working with these justice partners to pilot the use of emerging standards for exchanging information between organizations.
Improving the case management technology is absolutely necessary, but expensive. The state has allocated more than $20 million so far, but final contract costs will be much higher. To recoup some of the costs, the Judiciary is considering a convenience fee for electronic filing and paper-on-demand printing.
Judge Clyburn has discussed MDEC during meetings with court leadership, and the response has been very positive. Judge Clyburn describes the typical reaction as something along the lines of, “We’re not reinventing the wheel here. It’s the kind of technology that we’re all familiar with and work with at home right now.”
Any change brings uncertainty about jobs and work duties but, while the implementation of an updated, integrated system may mean that job responsibilities change, it will also mean that there will be new and different job opportunities. “No one’s going to lose their job” because of the start of this updating of technology, Judge Clyburn noted.
The Judiciary is in the process of choosing a vendor for the system. In the meantime, focus groups of Circuit Court and District Court judges are providing input about workflow, forms, in-court filings, exhibits, orders and other needs. Additional focus groups from the Circuit and District courts are being considered. Other groundwork includes online and in person surveys and discussions with groups such as the Maryland State Bar Association and other justice partners, as well as some site visits.
“This is a needs-based effort,” Judge Clyburn said. “We want the needs to drive the technology rather than bring in technology and try to make it fit.”
This groundwork will play a huge role in crafting the design of the system with the vendor. After a vendor is secured, the next step will be to put a final plan together, then test the system with a pilot program to work out operating details and fix glitches. A pilot program is planned to begin in 2013 in Anne Arundel County. Once that pilot is successful, the system will be put into place county by county with full statewide implementation planned by the end of 2016.
The Maryland Electronic Courts initiative (MDEC) website has more information, including answers to frequently asked questions from attorneys and the general public, illustrations of how a paperless system might work, and news and updates as the project moves forward: www.mdcourts.gov/mdec.