Washington County e-filing put on hold; state struggles with demand

Posted: October 22, 2017 at 1 a.m.

FAYETTEVILLE -- Washington County is hiring two clerks to handle court documents because the caseload keeps growing and the state won't implement an electronic filing program.

Washington and Madison counties were notified Oct. 2 they will not be added to the state's electronic court document filing system by the end of next year, Circuit Clerk Kyle Sylvester said.

Arkansas Court Automation Programs

Arkansas Court Automation Programs provides technological support to the state’s courts, makes court information available to the public and develops online, court-related services, according to the Administrative Office of the Courts website. The plan to provide statewide jury and case management technology to all 75 counties underwent a large-scale effort in 2011. Since then, however, the projects seem to have slowed with some counties, including Washington County, not fully getting services, county and state officials say.

Source: Staff report

The Washington County Quorum Court approved Thursday asking the state to move forward and add the county.

"This date being pushed back is costing us money," said Justice of the Peace Eva Madison, a Democrat who represents northeastern Fayetteville.

Justices of the peace agreed earlier this month to let Sylvester add two positions next year. That move comes despite concerns over the $68 million budget, which is outpacing revenue by about $5 million. The budget must be approved by the end of December.

Madison said allowing lawyers to file lawsuits electronically would require fewer employees and cut overtime. Employees have to scan the printed pages into computers.

The state-run program putting those documents online doesn't have the money, staffing or up-to-date technology to meet demand, state officials said.

Putting the e-filing project on hold indefinitely means legal documents will continue to be scanned, but the circuit court staff is backlogged, Madison said. Documents sometimes are filed at the courthouse a month or more before being posted online.

Washington County has seen a healthy increase in cases filed, especially in criminal cases, Prosecutor Matt Durrett said in an email. Durrett expects 20 percent more cases to be filed this year than last, according to a report by Durrett. His office filed 3,081 felony cases as of Sept. 29.

Nearly 14,000 cases were filed last year in the 4th Judicial Circuit, which is comprised of Washington and Madison counties, according to an annual report.

Durrett said e-filing would increase efficiency in the court.

Marty Sullivan, director of the Administrative Office of the Courts, said the state program already cannot meet demand.

More than 1 million cases were filed in courts statewide last year, Sullivan said. The computer programs will serve all 75 counties and provide public access to court records online and allow courts to manage jury information and cases. It also will let attorneys file paperwork online and gives law enforcement the ability to do citations electronically.

Some counties, including Pulaski and Benton counties, already have e-filing. But, adding another large county would be difficult because of lack of staff and money, state officials said.

The office also handles technical support calls, which have increased 61 percent over the past five years, said Timothy N. Holthoff, director of Court Information Systems Division. Employees answered 8,915 calls for support through September this year, documents show.

Calls come from lawyers, other state agencies and law enforcement. The Arkansas State Police check the service to find potentially dangerous people, Holthoff said. Not having all the counties on the system is a safety concern, he said. That includes Sebastian County, which has its own system and isn't fully connected to the state's services.

"In today's society, all these systems need to be able to talk to each other in real time," Holthoff said. "By having a statewide system, we can do a better job at public safety."

The state was already behind on implementing programs. Madison County Circuit Clerk Phyllis Villines said she didn't think her county would get e-filing next year. Also, the state's system is cumbersome, she said.

To add documents to the public access database, for example, county employees scan documents and use codes that don't have much to do with identifying the document, Villines said. There's also a lot of repetition and switching screens, she said.

The technology is at the end of its life for what it was designed for, Holthoff said.

"We are trying to find solutions," Holthoff said. "We don't have a magic wand, and we can't do this overnight."

Options to update the system could cost $20 million, Sullivan said. Some legislators are against growing the government, Holthoff said, so the office is trying to manage without adding people.

Rep. Bart Hester, R-Cave Springs, said most of the money for updating the technology should be in Sullivan's budget. The office budget was about $47 million for fiscal 2017, which ended in June. IT projects made up about $6 million of that, said Hervey F. Houser, director of Finance and Administration for the Administrative Office of the Courts.

The fiscal 2018 budget went up by $382,512 overall with $186,614 of that increase for technology program projects, Houser said.

Meanwhile, state leaders want a strategy, Sullivan said. That plan should include updating court technology, Arkansas Supreme Court Chief Justice John Dan Kemp wrote in his State of the Judiciary address this past June. He appointed a committee for the project.

"Yes, we are formulating a plan," Sullivan said. "This really affects every citizen of Arkansas. We are trying to move our system into the 21st century."

NW News on 10/22/2017