By Megan Poinski

In the next four years, Maryland’s state courts will be much less cluttered with paper, as the judiciary introduces electronic filing for documents.

But a Senate committee chairman complained about the long time to implement the new system.

Chief District Judge Ben Clyburn briefed the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee on the Maryland Electronic Court Initiative, which will revolutionize the way that all Maryland courts have cases filed and store and share information.

Attorneys or their staff will no longer have to physically go to the court to file documents. Members of the media and the public won’t have to go the courthouse to see papers and court clerks will not have to dig through file cabinets. Everything will be available on the Internet with a few clicks of a mouse.

Clyburn, who chairs the advisory committee for the Electronic Court Initiative, said there were several reasons to implement an electronic filing system.

Paper records occupy a lot of time, space and money in the court system, he said. The judicial system has several internal computer systems for different courts and regions, which cannot communicate with one another. When a decision is appealed to a higher court, the information about that case needs to be entered into that court’s system. That means different employees are taking time to put the same information into the computer system.

But, he said, there is one overarching goal.

“The main reason we’re doing this is to save a life,” he said.

There have been several cases where the paperwork delay involved in issuing warrants and protective orders have ended in tragedy, Clyburn said. In the past, judges have issued warrants and orders, but they were not filed until days later, after the people who came to court asking for them have been killed.

In the new system, as soon as a judge signs a warrant, notice of that warrant would be transmitted statewide, as well as to law enforcement agencies.

The state has been working toward an electronic court filing system for about three and a half years, Clyburn said. Maryland is following 22 other states that have implemented similar systems. The federal government’s court system has also had electronic filing and docketing for several years.

“We are not recreating the wheel,” Clyburn said.

Once the new system is in place, there will be no more paper filing in the state’s courthouses. People would still be able to come in to the courthouse and file paper documents, but they would be scanned and become electronic records. Additionally, he said, people would be able to print out any records they want to have as paper copies – but would also be able to read the documents off of a screen.

There are likely to be charges for filing and accessing documents – Clyburn said his committee is looking at a $5 “convenience fee” to file electronically, and access fees similar to those to get copies of documents  – but they have not yet been determined.

Clyburn expects that putting the system in place will cost between $50 million and $60 million. So far, about $15 million has been spent on the system – mostly on putting the database infrastructure in place. He said that the rest of the funds should come out of what he hopes will become an annual $8.3 million appropriation from the land record fund. This fund gets its money from land transfers, and supports land record office operations as well as the judiciary’s major information technology projects.

The system should be developed enough for it to be tested in courts in Anne Arundel County next year, Clyburn said. The system should be fully implemented in 2015.

“It’s 2011. The federal court has had this for some time,” said Committee Chairman Sen.  Brian Frosh, D-Montgomery County. “Why do we need to wait until 2015?”

Clyburn explained that several states did not do comprehensive research on how to best implement a system, jumping into electronic filing instead. Some of those states have had problems with their systems and are regretting not spending more time on due diligence.

“We want to do it the right way. We don’t want to waste money,” Clyburn said. “We want to do it once, and do it right.”

Clyburn’s main reason for briefing the committee was to familiarize them about the system. If there are any rule changes that need to be made in order to implement it, Clyburn will bring them to the committee later this year.