Paperless Family Courts: The Pluses And The Perils

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As Miami's family courts prepare to go paperless, a law.com article Family Court Embarks on Paperless Odyssey, by Billy Shields, Daily Business Review, October 22, 2007, available online discusses:
The Pluses
1. Miami-Dade Clerk of the Courts Harvey Ruvin recently announced a plan to make much of the division paperless sometime in January. It's a move he estimates will cost about $4 million to implement but save the court system at least $1 million a year by conservative estimates. A similar project that introduced optical imaging technology to the Traffic Division in 1998 saved the court system an estimated $30 million after costing $18 million, according to Ruvin.

2. Ruvin points out that paper documents have two other major disadvantages -- they are both unreliable and inaccessible.
"Paper is the least secure of all formats," Ruvin said. "Paper can only be viewed by one person at one place at one time."
Angry litigants occasionally rip out affidavits or other documents that can go missing -- in violation of the law. Especially with family court cases that drag on for decades, stacks of case files sometimes need to be viewed almost simultaneously by more than one judge.
"In the Family Division, a lot of cases don't end," said Miami-Dade Family Judge Joel Brown, who administers the division. "Family is paper intensive, and there's a need to share files. That's why the paperless system saves time."

3. As Ruvin pointed out, there are obvious benefits to an electronic filing system, especially in Miami. In a courthouse whose basement extends beneath the water table, it's risky to store paper files too low on shelves for fear they'll get soaked in a flood. This has happened already and court workers had to freeze-dry the documents to keep them intact.

The perils
1. More than 60 percent of Family Division users are pro se parties, according to Tilson. In areas such as child support, about 90 percent of the litigants are pro se. Computer illiteracy and other shortcomings associated with the other side of the widening chasm between the online and paper spheres has some observers worried that a whole class of people could eventually be left behind.

2. With the advent of the Internet, electronic fraud became a bigger problem, and court systems have become the unwitting accomplices of identity thieves. Social Security numbers and credit card information that were once squirreled away in obscure files on dusty shelves are often readily available on court Web sites.
The Florida Supreme Court has placed a moratorium that limits what kinds of documents can be displayed on a Web site, and by statute the court system in Florida has until Jan. 1, 2011, to redact private information from public documents, James said. Miami-Dade County courts already are redacting information like Social Security numbers.

3. There are also glitches that accompany any complex electronic system. Ironically, Miami-Dade's Circuit Court Web site was down during the period this article was being researched.

4. A docket composed entirely of electronic documents -- with no originals remaining -- may cause concern in the arena of public access to court filings as well.
In recent years, the Daily Business Review and The Miami Herald uncovered situations in South Florida where court dockets have been sealed without explanation at the federal and state circuit levels. It remains to be seen what effect a fully electronic docket would have on court secrecy.
Judges and clerks still would have discretion over what documents are added or removed from a case file. In the federal system -- which has been largely electronic for years -- court secrecy in South Florida came to a head in 2003, after the Daily Business Review reported that the U.S. District Court system was hiding cases from the public. In one instance, drug defendant Nicholas Bergonzoli was convicted, sentenced and imprisoned in total secrecy in 2002.
In another case, a court file made it into the federal PACER online document system, and then was removed shortly afterward.

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