September 5, 2013 in Opinion

Editorial: Court records should be available online

 

The Spokesman-Review Editorial Board

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Several Washington counties have made their superior court records available online. Spokane County is not among them.

That needs to change.

Inspecting superior court records in Washington has required a trip to the county courthouse, through security, and requesting a file from one of the clerks, or using one of the few computer terminals.

As courteous and competent as the clerks may be, the errand is convenient for very few, even less so if copies are desired.

If you cannot get to the Spokane County Courthouse, the records must be requested by mail, with a return, self-addressed envelope and a check to cover the fees.

In Chelan, Skagit and Snohomish counties, the courthouse trek is history. Their records are now available online via the Cheney office of the Washington State Archives. Mason County will be next, and other counties have begun the process, which entails converting records to a common format. New documents are transmitted daily.

The cost is low or minimal – Snohomish County handled the chore internally. Some software vendors are imposing modest fees.

Electronic records access was the No. 1 demand of court users, a Snohomish County court official said, adding that some counties are waiting to make the jump until the state adopts new case-management software.

A Texas company was awarded a $20 million contract for the work last week, with implementation to start this month.

The Snohomish County commissioners further simplified access by passing an ordinance that allows frequent record users such as attorneys to buy subscriptions for $600 a year. Other government agencies and nonprofits get the service for free.

Since July 1, 200 subscribers have signed on.

The cost to one-time users is set by state statute: $1, plus 25 cents per page for non-certified copies; $5, plus $1 for each additional page if certified copies are needed. There is also a $1 archive fee, and a charge of $5 for every 50 pages mailed.

The original copies stay in the home county.

Records that are supposed to remain sealed – juvenile and domestic violence, for example – are blocked.

The archive site already has e-commerce capability to allow payment using a credit card. And the service is available 24/7 for the midnight attorneys out there.

In just the first seven days the Snohomish County records were available, the archives logged almost 200 requests for documents, said June Timmons, chief applications analyst in Cheney.

Not only is that time and energy saved for those using the records, it’s time saved in clerks’ offices.

“It’s more than paid for itself,” Timmons says.

Courts at every level, from the U.S. Supreme Court down, have been moving toward greater access and transparency in an effort to increase public confidence in the judicial system. Federal court records have been available online for more than 20 years.

It’s a nifty service. The sooner every Washington county has something equivalent, the better.

To respond to this editorial online, go to www.spokesman.com and click on Opinion under the Topics menu.


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