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Alamance County’s court system will soon go paperless

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If some people think it’s frustrating not getting into the estates division at the clerk of court’s office (see related story, this edition), wait until Alamance County’s court system adopts the paperless “eCourts” system.

Alamance County’s court system hasn’t gone fully paperless yet, but it’s only a matter of time before it does, Alamance County clerk of superior court Meredith Edwards said Monday in an interview with The Alamance News.

North Carolina court officials made the decision several years ago to move exclusively to an online court case management system, now termed “eCourts.” The eCourts system is estimated to cost the state $100 million in order to overhaul an existing “mainframe” (online file management system) that has been in place since the 1980s, according to the state’s Administrative Office of the Courts.

The eCourts system went live last month in four counties – Wake, Harnett, Johnston, and Lee – but it apparently hasn’t been without hiccups. Harnett County court officials have canceled all district court cases for the week starting March 27 due to software problems, based on an administrative order that Harnett County chief district court judge J. Frank Wood entered last Thursday. Attorneys in other counties, including Wake County, have broadly described the “eCourts” system as ”half-baked,” complaining of clients being held in jail too long and numerous other processing delays, The (Raleigh) News & Observer reported late last month.

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That plan to implement the eCourts system in Alamance County was “already in play” when she was elected to her first four-year term as clerk of superior court in November 2018, Edwards recalled in the interview Monday. She also confirmed for the newspaper that the paper “shucks,” or case files, currently used in Alamance County’s courts will be a thing of the past, once the online system is fully implemented here. State court officials haven’t yet revealed when the online filing and case management system will be implemented in Alamance County, Edwards told the newspaper.

Alamance County Clerk of Court Meredith Edwards

“Electronic filing, online access to court records, better data and case management, and overall improved efficiencies to our judicial branch will benefit businesses and the public,” former North Carolina Supreme Court chief justice Cheri Beasley said in a June 26, 2020 “State of the Judiciary” address. “Our Business Court has shown how important these improvements in access and efficiency are for our business climate in North Carolina. It is vital that we continue to move forward with this project and I appreciate the support of legislative leadership for their commitment to provide the necessary funding.”

Meanwhile, the initial phase of implementation – in Wake, Harnett, Johnston, and Lee counties – was originally scheduled for October 2022 but was later pushed to February 2023.

The second phase of implementation, focusing exclusively on the Mecklenburg County courts system, had been scheduled to start in April but has reportedly been postponed until May, multiple news outlets reported earlier this month.

“They have been really guarded, not wanting to project out too far,” Alamance County’s clerk of superior court said.

“Each county is going to have its own set of concerns,” Edwards conceded in the interview. But she nonetheless remains hopeful that the new online system will better serve the public once the current, widely-reported kinks are resolved.

“All records will be available to search online,” Edwards said. “I think that level of transparency is really good.”

The online database currently used in Alamance County’s court system “is not designed to do some of the things we would prefer it to do,” Edwards elaborated. “We need a system to catch us back up with our modern life, with keeping records, and with transparency. The new system also allows the public to file [court documents] without having to come into the courthouse and mandates e-filing for attorneys. It effectively moves us to a paperless court system.”

Edwards, however, said she can’t say for certain right now what the turnaround time would be, from when a document is filed and when it can be accessed by members of the public. “From what I understand, it would be a fairly quick turnaround for the media and the public to be able to see that filing,” the clerk of court said.

“I don’t know enough about the system to have concerns other than to say the time and energy and effort to get Alamance County ready [is monumental].

“We have been cleaning up our data for a year-and-a-half,” Edwards said. “We’ve increased staffing in our busiest courtroom…We encourage people to use the online ‘guide and file’ [service] to get people used to [the system].

“I think it might be easier once it gets to [us],” Edwards said in a subsequent interview Wednesday, referring to problems that have been reported in the four pilot counties. “Overall, what I’m hearing is it’s getting better everyday.”

The “guide and file” service, which is available via a link on the Clerk of Court’s website, walks users through the steps for filing approximately eight different types of court documents. The online filing service is available for the following types of cases: absolute divorces; adult name changes; domestic violence protective orders; motions to claim exempt property; petitions to proceed as an indigent; probate; small claims proceedings; and eviction proceedings.

In the meantime, Edwards said she plans to send her staff to Johnston County in the coming weeks to observe how court employees there are handling the eCourts system. “We are trying to stay as far ahead of it as we can,” she said.

Once fully implemented, the eCourts system will enable the public and legal professionals to access all criminal and civil court documents (except for those that a judge has ordered to be sealed) from any computer, 24 hours a day and seven days a week, according to AOC.

State court officials have said that new public computer terminals will be installed in all courthouses once the eCourts system is implemented.

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