Trials live online with Virginia court site

In the mountainous, coal-mining region of southwest Virginia, residents can watch a live feed from the local courthouse from their home computers. With five cameras and seven microphones located throughout the courtroom, a surfer can take in trials, with only juvenile, domestic and sexual assault cases blocked.

For four years, the Wise County and City of Norton Circuit Court has slowly been building a World Wide Web site, offering subscribers information such as image land records for deeds, titles or easements, marriage records, wills and court judgments.

Circuit Court Clerk Jack Kennedy says the site, which won a state technology award in 1999 for providing access to citizens, is simply an extension of the court's service to the public.

"I believe in government access," he said, "to make the court more accessible to the public and more productive."

Wise County and Norton, the state's smallest city, with 4,200 people, are located in the Appalachian Mountains. The city's Web site says it is closer to seven other state capitals than its own in Richmond. Wise County has a population of 36,900.

When the site first began, it was free. But in February, with about 3,000 subscribers registered, officials decided to charge people to do database searches to make up the cost of leasing a server for $8,000 per year from Mixnet. Basic site information is still free.

Several subscription types are available: The Premium User Group, designed for lawyers, surveyors, realtors and other professionals who need extensive access to documents, costs $395 annually or $39 per month. People such as genealogists or family researchers can access the marriage and probate database, tracing back nearly 150 years, for $99 per year or $10 per month. Kennedy said that allowing people to access the database just for a day, with a smaller fee, is not cost-effective.

Though the 200 paying subscribers do not quite cover the expenses, Kennedy said, the income allows for more content to be added. He hopes that as more subscribers join, he'll be able to reduce the fees.

Plans for 2000 include access to building permits and linking them to the land database, e-filing land records, enhancing case management, and offering Web-based geographic information systems linked to land document images.


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