Online Access to Case Information

I know that I frequently complain about the glacial pace at which Illinois courts are finally adopting the electronic filing concept. At least in this arena, however, there is some progress. For example, DuPage County has implemented a very efficient efiling system.

However, the flip side to any good efiling system is the ability to access electronic records without visiting a courthouse to do so. Yesterday I wasted almost two hours of my time becuase I needed to review a court file. The actual review took only about five minutes. However the travel to and back from the courthouse was nothing but wasted time.

I should have been able to access that file over the internet while sitting at my desk. After all, these are public documents that we are talking about. I don’t understand the institutional desire to deliberately make these documents hard to access.

In a Chicago Tribune article from February 2007, the Illinois Supreme Court reiterated its opposition to making public records publicly available:

But the Illinois Supreme Court, which sets the policy for all Illinois courts, said making records available on the Internet might make them too public, leaving litigants vulnerable to invasions of privacy. Officials cite everything from divorce records to civil complaints as problematic.

State court documents often contain “sensitive and personal information” and allegations that “are not necessarily true,” said Joseph Tybor, spokesman for the Illinois Supreme Court.

“The court’s concern is over a person or persons who would just sit [at a computer] for hours on end and comb court files for information,” Tybor said. “If someone has to come to the courthouse to view the file, it makes it more likely that person has a bona-fide interest in the information.”

Critics say that’s an odd stance toward records that are, by law, public and available for anyone to view at the courthouse.

I agree with the critics. Court records are public documents, therefore they should be publicly available. It is simply ridiculous that I can access and review court records on cases courts all over the country without leaving my desk, but if I want to view a court file in a case in DuPage County, I have to drive there.

If a file contains sensative information, then that information can be filed under seal. Otherwise, the file should be publicly available. Illinois is not an insignificant state. We should be on the forefront of using technology to make our courts accessible to everyone. We should not be bringing up the rear with obstructionist polcies.

E-Filing and 20th Century Lawyers

It is no secrete that I love the CM/ECF (e-filing) system that the federal courts use. Not only is it very convenient to be able to file your documents from your desk, but it is also great that you don’t have to serve those documents on the other parties who have filed an appearance in the case.

When a document is filed with the ECF system, the system automatically sends and email to everyone who has filed a appearance informing them that a document has been filed and providing a link to download the document. This means that everyone has a copy of the document just minutes after it has been filed. In addition to the time savings, this process also saves staff time, postage, and mailing supplies.

Notwithstanding this, there are still some lawyers who either don’t understand this or who can’t abide by the fact that a computer system is performing their service for them. So, it is not unusual for me to see that something has been filed in a federal case (either district court or bankruptcy) and then a few hours later I receive a copy fax. Although not a frequent, but still way more often than it should be, I will not only receive a copy by fax, but I will get a copy in the mail a day or two later.

I know that sometimes people have diffiuclty adopting to new technologies, but I don’t understand the desire of these attorneys to waste the additional time, money, and effort duplicating the work performed by the ECF system.

Efiling and Cook County

Yesterday i attended a presentation by the Cook County Circuit Clerk about the efiling system they are planning to roll out in March 2009. The vendor Cook County selected is, which is also the vendor for the statewide efiling project in Alabama. The fact that this vendor has a track record doing this is encouraging. On the other hand, Cook County has a few more filings than they have in Alabama. According to the 2007 Annual Report on Illinois Courts, in 2007, ther were a total of 1,955,480 cases filed. According to the representative yesterday, last year there were approximately 250,000 cases filed in Alabama. This number seems low to me for Alabama. I would note that the 2007 Annual Report on Illinois Courts shows that in 2007 there were 318.126 cases filed in DuPage County. Nevertheless there is no question but that they were dealing with fewer cases in Alabama than they will be in Cook County.

Based on the demo presented yesterday, it appears that attorneys will be able to file cases, have summons issued, and review all electronic documents on their case from within the system. I am interested to see what further information is released as this project is rolled out over the next couple of months.

One thing I found interesting at the presentation was that there were several questions that were directly related to AOIC rules, including questions about public access to court documents over the internet as well as questions about why the clerk had to print copies of electronically filed documents. I thought it was clear from several people in the room that there is a huge desire for the ability to access court documents remotely. I am glad I am not the only one who wants this.

Update: I forgot to mention that the efiling project is being rolled out first only to Law Division cases on the Commercial Calendar. Clerk Brown said yesterday that she plan to roll it out to other divisions once the project starts and she gets permission from the AOIC.

So Close, But Not Quite There Yet

A few weeks ago I received an email from one of the bankruptcy courts to which I am admitted. The email announced that they will be doing an “ECF Tip of the Month.” The idea is to address problems commonly encountered with the ECF system.

For example, the first tip is for filing an amended creditor matrix. From viewing the materials in the tip, it appears that people are filing the amended matrix as an original matrix.

The tip contains good information and includes a tutorial in Adobe Captivate that shows how to properly upload the creditor matrix. I think this is a good idea and eventualy it will provide a good source of archived tips.

I have two issues with how they have implimented it, however. First, there is no RSS feed. This is the perfect type of material to have an RSS feed with. Why make it difficult for people to find the tips when they are released. Second, there is no separate landing page for the Tip of the Month. Instead there is a blinking title over the link to the tip of the month, that takes you to the particular demo. Once again, if this is something you want people to access regularly, it should have its own page on the website.