Technology Pilot Links Courts and Lawyers

An electronic filing and communications system extends the reach of a county court database

When Prince George's County Circuit Court Judge Arthur (Monty) Ahalt wants to review pending legal cases at home, he no longer has to lug thick files of court documents from the courthouse to his house. With a few key strokes on his laptop, he can review court files on his modem-equipped laptop, which is linked to a database at the courthouse.

Ahalt and other judges, court administrators and private attorneys who ply their trade in the Prince George's County circuit courts have been participating in a pilot program since last November to test JusticeLINK, an electronic filing and communications system. Currently, the program allows for electronic filing of only motor tort and foreclosure cases.

Participants in the two-year electronic filing project include 33 attorneys, three of 20 county circuit court judges and 15 court administrative employees, as well as two insurance companies.

The pilot program is one of several across the nation paving the way for advanced information technology into the nation's courts. State courts in California, Idaho and Utah are also experimenting with electronic filing systems, said Lin Walker, a technology specialist at the National Center for State Courts, Williamsburg, Va., a non-profit group that provides services to help the courts carry out their mission of dispensing justice fairly and efficiently.

Ameritech Information Access, a division of Ameritech of Chicago, in partnership with the Los Angeles County Probate Court, launched an electronic filing program in December 1995.

Prince George's County residents can dial up CivicLink to review county court schedules, criminal and civil case records, and other government information, including property and tax records. Civic- Link was launched in December 1995, replacing P.G. Online, a public access system for the courts and the county government. Ameritech officials said CivicLink has more than 400 users and estimated that at least 60 percent of the users are legal professionals.

Developed through a partnership between the Prince George's Circuit Court and Andersen Consulting of Chicago, the Maryland project allows attorneys to file documents, obtain court information and communicate with the court and clerk's office and lets attorneys participating in the project send and receive messages among themselves. JusticeLINK also permits court administrators and judges to access court documents and filings.

Based on a modified version of Lotus Notes, JusticeLINK software costs subscribing attorneys in Prince George's County about $200 per workstation. Attorneys pay a $10 fee per filing and are charged 30 cents a minute for on-line access to the court's case management database. The system is in operation 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

"We've made it easier for attorneys to file legal documents and for court clerks and judges to access those filings," said Ken Bien, who heads the justice and public safety practice in North and South America for Andersen. Typically, almost half of a courthouse is devoted to paper storage, Bien said. "With this system, you'll never have any lost files again. Courts can add courtrooms to their buildings because there's less need for storage space," he said.

Courts in Prince George's County proved an ideal test ground because its judges and administrators were willing to try new technology, Andersen officials said. Andersen struck an agreement in May 1995 with the court to implement JusticeLINK.

Both the Maryland State Bar Association and the Williamsburg, Va.-based National Center for State Courts plan to review the results of the pilot program, said officials from the organizations.

The JusticeLINK test project is divided into three phases, county officials said. The initial phase provided court database access to subscribers; the second phase added electronic filing capability. The final phase involves document imaging permitting all court documents to be stored electronically, including those originally filed as paper documents.

Court officials are seeking additional funding of at least $100,000 to launch the third phase. Court Administrator Suzanne James estimated the county has spent roughly $25,000 on the first two phases.

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