County adds Web-based court records

The Clerk of the Circuit Court in Fairfax County, Va., recently contracted with Performance Engineering Corp. (PEC) to develop the Courts Automated Recording System, which is a program that digitally captures court records and makes them readily accessible via a World Wide Web-based interface.

CARS represents the court's efforts to tackle the gargantuan task of ensuring the accuracy and availability of more than 30 million public records -- some of which date back to 1742 -- without using anymore office space.

CARS will be completed in phases, the first of which includes online searching, retrieval, viewing and managed printing of land records. Other public documents, including marriage licenses, wills and trade names, also will eventually be made available through the system.

Land records dating back to 1983 are currently available using the public retrieval option, and they can be accessed through 20 PCs at the clerk's office.

"Citizens, the media, anyone can come in to do research," said Doug Clegg, technical project manager at the circuit court. "Presently, January 1999 to January 1983 are available, and we're heading back to 1742."

The current system of stamping, indexing and then verifying the records before scanning them into the system will be changed in the next two months to make scanning the first step in the process. That way, records can be viewed in multiple locations at one time, Clegg said.

Remote access for the roughly 60 title companies that regularly visit the clerk's office eventually will be added as a subscription service, but there are no plans to put everything up on the Web, Clegg said.

The image work on the actual documents already has been completed back to the 1940s, but digitizing the paper indexes to all those files takes a little more time.

"The land records are digitized, staged and on the system back to 1973, and the records themselves have been digitized back into the '40s," Clegg said. "We're just waiting for the indexes, which are still in the paper books in the clerk's office. It's all part of the staging and phasing aspect of the project."

"The phased approach means that some aspects of the project are done and some haven't even been started," said Chuck Cunningham, principal member of the technical staff at PEC. "The system development is done, but operational issues are still being worked on."

Another phase of the project involves day-forward documents and their corresponding indexes, which will be incorporated into the overall system of land records and public service documents, providing real-time, centralized access to interested parties. That aspect of the project is in the final test stages and should be operational in the near future, Cunningham said.

The system already has facsimile digital images of more than 10 million records available to on-site researchers. Remote-access tests by title companies that need to change some information on a property or update a land record also are being worked on and handled by the county. The title companies eventually will have continual remote access, including paying for the service online.

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