Regardless of the time or location, Floridians will soon access court documents with the click of a button.
The Florida Courts Technology Commission has told 58 counties — including Duval, St. Johns, Nassau, Clay and Putnam counties — they had to begin posting court records online by July 1.
“That’s great. That’s great. That’s great,” said Clay Calvert, a University of Florida media law professor and director of the Marion B. Brechner First Amendment Project. “It’s about time. We’re living in a digital age. This is like bringing a virtual courthouse to people’s homes. No longer do they have to drive to a courthouse and search through documents.”
For those with limited transportation or limited availability during a workday, they had to struggle to get copies of a lawsuit or arrest documents. Those living in other states had an even harder time getting those records.
In 2004, the Florida Supreme Court told county clerks they couldn’t post court records online for fear that Social Security numbers and other exempted information would get out. In 2007, it allowed Manatee County to operate a pilot program, which it has been doing.
Meanwhile, most counties, like Duval, allowed attorneys to access records, even on cases where they were not representing the plaintiff or defendant.
The court announced counties could allow the general public to view records online, rather than drive to a courthouse and pay for print copies. Those counties that already offered access to attorneys would have to either offer no access or full access.
If all goes according to plan, all but eight counties will offer digital records by July 1. Baker, Hamilton, Leon, Levy, Monroe, Seminole, Suwannee and Taylor counties did not submit applications to provide digital records last year.
Baker County Clerk Stacie Harvey, who was elected last November, said she filed her application Wednesday. She hopes to let Baker County citizens and the public see records online soon.
“They’ll have it accessible to their homes, not having to come to the clerk’s office during normal business hours. Most people work the same time we do, so they don’t have that option to get off work and come to the courthouse to collect records,” she said. “They can look and get information they need at no cost to them. Whereas, if we print it there’s going to be a cost. It’s going to be a money saver to the public. It’s less time my staff has to go away from their day-to-day jobs to pull from arrest records or what-have-you.”
The records include lawsuits, arrests, motions, judge’s orders and more.
Though the Supreme Court lifted the ban against online court records almost a year ago, it took the Florida Courts Technology Commission a little longer than expected to approve all the counties, said state courts staffer Lakisha Hall.
Now, she said, the impact on courts will be monumental.
“Oh God, this is extremely important,” she said. “It’s going to be huge. The public can actually access records online. No longer do you have to go to the clerk’s office and get paper copies. It’s such an inconvenience. You can have it at your fingertips.”
Now that the application is approved, the Duval County clerk’s office is working to get the system ready, spokesman Charlie Broward said.
“We’re happy that the application was approved. Now we’re moving forward doing the work behind the scenes,” he said. “… We’re confident we’re going to make that deadline.”
Now that almost everyone will offer digital records, counties will be able to learn from each other and push each other further, said Jeff Taylor, deputy information technology director for Manatee County’s clerk of court.
Though Manatee County has offered online records for eight years, Taylor said the clerk’s office is revamping its website to make it more user friendly. Other counties, he said, will face similar problems.
“I think a lot of the problems they’ll see is just in the navigation really,” he said. “Once you get a feel for how the attorneys use the website, there may need to be some changes that need to be made. Our biggest concern is security. If you get that right, the rest of it will fall in place in time.”
Carol Jean LoCicero represented about 60 newspapers and TV stations in the Florida Supreme Court case asking that records be made public for everyone.
“It’s been a long time coming,” she said. “We’re glad to see anything that increases transparency in the judicial system. … The easier it is to get access to government records, the better. If we can make access easier, then we have an obligation to do that. For some people it’s about whether they’ll be able to access it at all. If you’re disabled, hopping down to the courthouse isn’t realistic.”
Original article here.