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VOL. 127 | NO. 62 | Thursday, March 29, 2012

Circuit, Chancery Make Move to Paperless

By Bill Dries

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The day-to-day business of Shelby County’s Circuit and Chancery courts is on the way to going paperless after more than 150 years of ink on paper.

The Circuit and Chancery courts clerks’ offices will go to electronic, or e-filing, of all court records in June.

Attorneys can still file a paper version of proceedings with the clerk’s office and that will continue indefinitely. The two clerks’ offices are now scanning them and plan to go completely to e-filing at some point. They have already scanned 350,000 existing documents from existing cases.

“We’re going to put up the first state court e-filing system in Tennessee,” said Maury Wessels, Circuit Court manager of information systems. “You’ll be able to file new cases or be able to file new documents on existing cases.”

The move to e-filing began in 1998 when the technology first presented itself. Jimmy Moore was still Circuit Court clerk. Kenny Armstrong, who is now a chancellor, was the Chancery Court clerk and master.

But at the time, there wasn’t the proliferation of high-speed Internet access there is now and the ability to scan documents was limited.

The technology has changed several times over since then. County government’s recent change to an office of information technology was also a factor.

The ACS Case Management system cost $427,450 and was paid for in capital improvement program funding after the county put out a request for proposal. The e-filing software is Tybera, a system the state of Arkansas is about to begin using and which is already used in courts in Delaware and Nevada.

The federal court system’s PACER – Public Access to Court Electronic Records – electronic filing system is the model for the new system. But there are some differences including in the part of the legal community using the system to come in Chancery and Circuit.

“When you get to the criminal side of things, you get to tighter relationships between just government offices,” Wessels said. “It’s going to be hundreds of attorneys who are really going to use this system. So it’s really a lot broader impact to the legal community.”

There will be some different ground rules.

“We will not have adoptions initially on e-filing,” said Chancery Court Clerk and Master Donna Russell. “Adoptions, terminations and surrenders will be done in the traditional fashion for security purposes originally. This is a new adventure and we may eventually go this direction. But we want to be sure that when we go that direction, all of the bugs have been worked out.”

Tax sales will be dealt with by parcels of property instead of one consolidated tax sale case.

The state of Tennessee permits courts to charge for registration of users of the e-filing system – a one-time charge of up to $120. But Van Sturdivant, the Circuit Court chief administrative officer, said neither court will charge any kind of fee at least for now nor will it charge a per page cost to copy the records on the secure website.

“We don’t want it to cost anymore than it has to,” he said.

The fees to open cases that existed before e-filing will remain in place. And if an old case is reopened under the e-filing system, there will be fees.

Wessels said the goal is a two-hour turnaround in approving filings in both courts during business hours. Attorneys can file after business hours. They can get a later email notice that the clerks’ offices have reviewed their filing. Provided there are no errors in the e-filing, the court record will show the record was filed when they sent it instead of when it was reviewed.

The complex and random assignment of divorce cases on a one-to-three ratio – three parts of Chancery Court and nine divisions of Circuit Court – between the two courts will use the same rules. But instead of the divorce referee pulling a card from a box to determine the specific judge assigned to a case, the filing system will do that and take care of the ratio of the assignments.

The software will send the divorce case to the referee for review before it goes to the clerk’s office. The system won’t notify an attorney which court the case is assigned to until the filing is reviewed, the court assignment is made and the case file is created.

Sealed documents won’t be visible on the system.

The federal system has a notation that a record is sealed. That won’t be the case in Circuit and Chancery.

“You won’t get a hit,” Wessels said. “It won’t prompt you that it is sealed.”

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