Courts mull comments on Internet filing

A movement by the U.S. Courts to create electronic case files and to provide public access to those files through the Internet has received mixed reviews from the public.

Over the next few years, most federal courts will begin to put in place a new case management system, called Case Management/Electronic Case Files. The system gives each court the option to create electronic case files by allowing lawyers and parties to file their documents over the Internet.

The public will access the electronic files for a fee primarily through an existing Web-based system called Public Access to Court Electronic Records. Electronic case files also will be available at public computer terminals at courthouses free of charge.

In November 2000, the Judicial Conference of the United States — the policy-making arm of the courts — asked the public for comment on the privacy and security implications of providing electronic public access to court case files and presented several scenarios under consideration.

Creation of electronic files means that the files may be viewed, printed or downloaded by anyone, at any time, via the Internet.

The courts received 240 responses (available at www.privacy.uscourts.gov/matrix.htm) that reflect wide-ranging interests and concerns. For example:

  • John Frank, a lawyer with Lewis and Roca LLP, Phoenix, said electronic access to case files may encourage fraud. "There is a concern that this device will make it very easy for persons with no legitimate interest to obtain financial information about "targets' for possible fraud," he said.
  • Norman Mayer, clerk of court for the U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Virginia, who was speaking for himself and not for his employer, said a balance must be maintained. "It is my belief that privacy protections should be put in place on electronic court records, restricting public access where the privacy interests outweigh the public's interests in openness," he said. "Sensitive personal and business data need to be protected before electronic records are made accessible."
  • The Newspaper Association of America recommended the courts follow the same access policy for electronic case files that it applies to paper files. "Electronic access to court records should complement — rather than mitigate — the important interests that are served by openness," it said.

The courts plan to hold a public hearing on the issue March 16.

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