Thursday, May 23, 2024

114 West Elm Street
Graham, NC 27253
Ph: 336.228.7851

Clerk of court: expect slow start to electronic court records beginning Monday

There’s an old adage that says the wheels of justice turn slowly.  Soon, that pace will probably seem more like a stone wheel on a washboard gravel road, based on Alamance County clerk of superior court Meredith Edwards’ predictions for what to expect when the state’s online court records management system, officially termed “eCourts,” takes effect in Alamance County Monday morning.

[Story continues below photos.]

Alamance County clerk of superior court Meredith Edwards discusses the upcoming shift to eCourts at her office beginning Monday April 29.
Boxes of paper court documents line the basement hallway in the Alamance County Historic Court House. Court documents associated with cases that aren’t pending will eventually be scanned into the new “eCourts” system and shredded.

The new eCourts system will replace the existing MS-DOS “indexing” computers, which allow members of the public to search for case files using a file number or a name, Edwards explained Monday in an interview with The Alamance News. These existing computer systems are currently located in the civil and criminal court houses.

However, those existing so-called “legacy systems” will no longer be available for filing or searching for court documents.  Paper court “shucks,” which often contain criminal warrants and civil complaints, also will become a thing of the past.

- Advertisement -

In the immediate term, online access will be confined to pending actions filed April 29 and later; and as the transition occurs, there will be a time lag between even when new filings are submitted online and when they’re publicly-accessible.

“What comes in after [April 29] will have a 24-hour turnaround now,” Edwards elaborated.  “We have to move it so the public can see it.”

“You will see an index of filings,” the clerk of court elaborated.  But access to new and existing case files is likely to be slow, as court staff are now required to redact any personally identifying information such as Social Security numbers and victim information before court filings can be posted online, Edwards said.  “Old case files, we can’t redact them as fast,” she added.

There are two major prongs to the new eCourts system: “File & Serve,” the online platform that attorneys and members of the public will use to file most types of cases, beginning Monday.

The second prong is called “Portal,” which allows the public, attorneys, and court officials to search for cases online.  That part of the eCourts system will only allow for court documents to be retrieved by entering a case number or the name of a party/defendant – and even searches performed with that level of detail might not yield the expected results, The Alamance News learned during a trial run of the eCourts system earlier this month.

There is no charge to file or search for court filings online, but registration for a free account is required.


CLARIFICATION RE: ECOURTS

A story about the new eCourts system that ran in the April 25 edition of The Alamance News and online here should have stated that registration for an account is not required to access online court documents through “Portal,” the new online court records management system.

In addition to the name of a party and/or a case file number, court documents can also be accessed online by entering several criteria, which include: the attorney’s name, county, or type of case.


All new filings (i.e., court documents filed April 29 and after) that are not confidential case types, such as juvenile cases and adoptions, will be publicly available, but old case files that aren’t pending won’t be immediately available through eCourts, Edwards said.

For the foreseeable future, people dealing with the local court system should expect “for things to move a lot slower than they have ever moved before,” Edwards explained.  “There’s going to be a period of time for the next 60 days especially, but extending for the next six months at least, where the clerks are still learning to do their jobs.  It’s never going to be as fast as how we work right now [with the existing system and paper files.]

“A lot of times, people conflate technology with efficiency,” the clerk of court added, “but that’s not the case with this.  This system has a greater impact with [criminal] district court, because the volume of cases is higher.”

As part of the shift to electronic court files, paper documents associated with existing or closed cases (without pending actions) will be scanned in and eventually destroyed, Edwards said.  Currently, she estimated it will take 12 to 15 months to get all old case files scanned into the system.”

Edwards’ assistant, Kristie Culler, pointed out that all county court systems are required to have a separate person scanning files into eCourts, and then another person to perform quality control checks to ensure that all court files are accurate and complete.

“Ours is a clerk-based system; there is no other actor that carries more of the transitional load than the clerks,” Edwards explained.  She and her deputy clerks have been working around the clock since mid-March to prepare for the transition, prompting her to freeze vacation requests  “just to survive” until the forthcoming launch of eCourts in Alamance County, said Edwards.

“Our rollout has been compacted in terms of the timeline, compared to [other counties that have already implemented eCourts],” Edwards pointed out.  “Ours has been the quickest rollout in this short of a period of time.”

The implementation of eCourts in Alamance County was originally scheduled for later this year.

However, Edwards said she and her staff were informed three months ago that eCourts would “go live” in Alamance County on April 29.

 

From A to Z overnight

Seemingly overnight, Alamance County’s courts will have gone from “antiquated” technology, which has been used since the 1980s and is vulnerable to cyberattacks, to the new eCourts technology – or as Edwards put it, “from A to Z.”

People who lack internet access will still be able to bring hard copies of court filings to a court clerk that can be scanned into the new system, though Edwards noted, “We have been encouraging people to use [the online filing system] for over a year now to get people used to it.  Overwhelmingly, the public has been receptive.”

Edwards told the newspaper it’s her understanding that computer terminals for filing and retrieving documents eventually will be installed at the criminal courts building and at the Historic Court House, where the estates, small claims, special proceedings, and other parts of the civil division are housed.

However, state court officials overseeing the implementation of eCourts have not yet given an exact time frame for when those public terminals will be installed in Alamance County’s court buildings, Edwards indicated in the interview.

The county’s clerk of court also cautioned that, similar to any kind of significant change, there are still a lot of unknowns about what to expect once the launch date for eCourts finally arrives.  “Whatever people thought they knew about a regular day of court operations is going to be different after April 29,” she said.  “We will help, the best we can, it just won’t be as fast.”

Alamance County is among 10 N.C. counties in the Piedmont Triad region where eCourts will launch on Monday. The nine other counties that will implement eCourts later this month include: Chatham, Durham, Franklin, Granville, Guilford, Orange, Person, Vance, and Warren.

The online court records system had previously launched in 17 other N.C. counties.  The new system initially launched in early 2023 in five “pilot” counties: Harnett, Johnston, Lee, Mecklenburg, and Wake.

Another 12 counties rolled out eCourts at the beginning of February 2024: Beaufort, Camden, Chowan, Currituck, Dare, Gates, Hyde, Martin, Pasquotank, Perquimans, Tyrrell, and Washington, according to the N.C. Judicial Branch.

By mid-July, another 11 counties in the western part of the state will launch the eCourts system.

Officials in the state’s Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) have said that eCourts will be launched in 49 out of the 100 counties in North Carolina by the end of this year.

N.C. court officials have not yet announced the dates on which eCourts will be launched in the remaining 51 counties, which include 13 counties west of Mecklenburg; 13 coastal counties; 11 in the coastal plains region; and 14 counties in northwestern N.C.

“I would also say to [members of] the public who feel a little bit leery about the computer system this is for the benefit of the public,” Edwards pointed out.  “It provides 24/7 access at your fingertips.  It pushes us forward in terms of keeping public records very public…There is no other state doing what we’re doing.”

Must Read

Sheriff promotes property tax hike to help fill staff-level vacancies

Alamance County’s board of commissioners has generally given wide berth to a tax hike in years when any of its members are up for...