Case files going digital

February 18, 2008

After nine years of delays, Franklin County residents finally can see lawsuits and other court documents on computers.

But only at the courthouse.

"This has been a long, arduous and difficult process," said John O'Grady, the county's clerk of courts. "The public is finally getting what it needs."

The county's project to network court computers and post documents online began in 1999, with then-Clerk Virginia Barney buying an $8.5 million system. The effort suffered a series of setbacks as clerks, commissioners and county technology experts changed.

O'Grady said he immediately began seeing problems after he took office in 2001.

"We started to realize that the scope of this project -- how many resources is this going to take and how much time -- was much bigger," he said. "They didn't have a full understanding of what they bought."

The $8.5 million system would need to grow to $16 million or $17 million to do what the county wanted it to do, consultants said. But by 2005, technology was getting better and cheaper. A courthouse steering committee found compatible software that would scan documents, post their images and allow attorneys to file electronically for $424,000.

Meanwhile, half of the county's original investment was used to network computers; the other half -- about $4 million worth of software -- is on a shelf, but might be used someday because it comes with upgrades, O'Grady said.

In January, the clerk's office opened the imaged documents to the public at the courthouse. "Now, all 2007 documents are available and we are back-scanning other years as time and budgets allow," said Rosa Barker, information technology director for O'Grady. For the past year, only a summary of cases -- not the full images of documents -- could be viewed on the clerk's Web site.

The Ohio Supreme Court is expected to issue rules in May about what document images can be published online to guard citizens' privacy and prevent identity theft.

Nelson E. Genshaft, president of the Columbus Bar Association, said electronic filing and online documents will benefit attorneys and clients. "But we're also mindful of the potential ramifications of making sensitive information available online," Genshaft said. Those who have been using the computerized documents inside the courthouse say it's a huge improvement. "

Where otherwise, I had to find an employee to run over to the clerk's office, find the file and then find the document," Prosecutor Ron O'Brien said, "I have access to it on computer."

The next step will be to allow lawyers to file documents electronically from their offices, for a fee.

Common Pleas Judge John P. Bessey agreed that the turnover at the courthouse made completing the computer system difficult, and the scope and cost of the project were poorly defined. "We realized it was more than we could afford, and we wished the vendor well and retreated," Bessey said. The team regrouped and saved the project by finding other software. "I'm really optimistic and very excited," Bessey said. "Hindsight is always 20-20. We weren't playing well in the sandbox. That wasn't John's fault. I don't think it's fair to lay everything on John's shoulders."

By Bruce Cadwallader and Barbara Carmen: and