Poor left behind as federal courts advance to electronic age

Sunday, October 12, 2003

WASHINGTON -- The poor are largely being left out as the federal courts slowly transform their paper-choked courthouses into an electronic world.

The federal courts decided last month to allow the public to read criminal case files on the Internet. Six years ago, court administrators began scanning civil and bankruptcy cases into a new computer system developed at the prodding of a clerk in Cleveland who had to turn a court parking garage into a file room for an avalanche of asbestos damage suits.

No one is mourning the end of a paper system in which the lone copy of each case file was available only when the court clerk's office was open and a judge wasn't using it. Everyone applauds an electronic system that allows cases to be filed around the clock and case files to be read by any number of people at any hour, from any location.

Although no one has estimated nationwide savings, District Court Clerk Patricia L. Brune in Kansas City uses one-tenth the file space that paper required, is shouldering her largest workload ever and checking that every document is filed correctly -- even with 11 staff vacancies. "Before we just checked samples because we were overrun just moving paper," she said.

Now, 26 of 94 U.S. District Courts and 60 of 90 bankruptcy courts use the system for some or all files. Appellate courts convert next year. More than 10 million federal cases reside on computers instead of paper and more than 40,000 attorneys have filed documents over the Internet.

But little has been done to help those who cannot afford a computer or Internet access or the 7 cents per page charged for reading court records over the Internet.

Too poor to file

"This aggressive plan seems to make no provision for self-represented litigants," particularly the poor, said Ronald W. Staudt, law professor at Chicago-Kent College of Law.

The U.S. District Court in Washington brags on its Web site that all pending civil cases will be converted to electronic files by Oct. 27. "Thereafter, all filings must be made electronically," it announces. But that's not true.

"We just can't require electronic filing by paupers," acknowledged Shelly Snook, aide to Chief Judge Thomas F. Hogan. Pauper cases will still be filed on paper and scanned into the system by clerks here -- and at other federal electronic courthouses.

"How quickly will that be done?" asked A.J. Kramer, federal public defender in Washington. "When the other party files or the judge rules, how will word be given to the poor litigant?"

Kramer said his office, which represents poor criminal defendants, is ready for electronic filing, but in civil cases poor people won't have the access others do. Studies show legal aid only reaches 20 percent to 30 percent of poor people who need it in civil cases.

The federal system can't say how many poor litigants will be affected because it doesn't count pauper cases, where filing fees are waived.

Prisoners filed 20 percent of the nearly 275,000 federal civil cases last year, and most were paupers. Poor people outside prison filed an uncounted portion of the rest. Nearly half the 58,000 appeals came from people without lawyers; they weren't all paupers, but 16,000 inmates who filed civil appeals without lawyers probably were.

Federal and state inmates are barred from using the Internet. Although federal prisons have law libraries, the Bureau of Prisons hasn't considered allowing inmates to file electronically, said spokesman Dan Dunne. Technologist Jim McMillan of the National Center for State Courts said it would "make tremendous sense" for prisons to provide computers whose outside access is restricted to court filing sites.

LexisNexis has developed uncomplicated Web pages for case filing. But at a January conference on electronic filing, "every participant who represented low-income or self-represented litigants stated that their customers would need even more simplicity and assistance to interact with courts electronically," Professor Staudt said.

Some court officials are trying to help the poor keep up. In Kansas City, Brune installed public-use computers and her staff now has time to train the public on them.

Among the 25 states experimenting with computerized filing, only Colorado has statewide electronic filing. With $165,000 from the Legal Services Corp., Colorado is becoming the first state to allow low-income people without lawyers to file electronically for free through self-help computers in courthouses. English and Spanish Web pages, developed by the Legal Aid Society of Orange County, Calif., will require no legal background and ask questions at a fifth-grade level to fill out legal documents.

Staudt said no one has solved the problem of continuing contact with poor litigants over the course of a case. Ventura County, Calif., though, has installed wireless Internet access in a motor home and drives this mobile clerk's office to rural areas to serve farm workers.

On the Net:

Federal courts electronic access: http://www.uscourts.gov/electaccrt.html

Ventura County mobile office: http://courts.countyofventura.org/mobile--shlac.htm

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