San Luis Obispo Courts Taking Leap From Microfiche to E-filing

     (CN) - San Luis Obispo Superior Court is in the midst of a two-week "fit analysis" to see how its old record-keeping system works with a new e-filing system bought for $3.1 million.
     The court that covers the seaside resort of Pismo Beach and the wine region of Paso Robles was next in line to receive a statewide records system called the Court Case Management System, pushed by California's central court administration. Before it could be installed, the half-billion-dollar CCMS project was abandoned.
     In the wake of that debacle, the Judicial Council that sets policy for California's courts endorsed the purchase by local trial courts of case management systems sold by private vendors. In June, the council approved $3.36 million for that purpose for San Luis Obispo.
     During a bidding contest in July, Dallas-based Tyler Technologies bid $3.1 million while a number of other contractors bid substantially less. Tyler distinguished itself within the bidding criteria by offering to sell its system outright.
     "The part that's really attractive is that we bought the license," said Presiding Judge Barry LaBarbera. "We're not renting it."
     In essence, San Luis Obispo owns the e-filing system that it is now fitting into place and any fees charged to lawyers for e-filing would go to the court.
     LaBarbera said the central Administrative Office of the Courts was involved in the process but the decision to award Tyler the contract was made by him and his staff in San Luis Obispo.
     The otherwise well-appointed courts of San Luis Obispo were mired in the technological past, using a micro-fiche system to store court documents. With the move to e-filing, the court is taking a roughly 50-year technological leap.
     "We'll have one system instead of 21 systems," said Court Executive Officer Susan Matherly, going on to describe a hodge-podge of computer systems that handle everything from traffic violations to murder cases.
     She said Tyler's web-based Odyssey software will also help the court do away with its mainframe computers, maintained by programmers who are retiring.
     "We have the potential to go paperless," she said. "We'll be able to get rid of microfiche and we'll phase e-filing into the system."
     After the CCMS system was abandoned last year, LaBarbera told the Judicial Council that he thought CCMS would have worked for his court, but that, in any case, the need for replacement of the court's jumbled technology was desperate.
     "We've been without a system for 12 years," he said at the time. "Really dysfunctional for the last six. We don't have a civil system at all."
     This week, with a new contract inked, LaBarbera said he hopes the coming changes benefit the public as well as the court.
     "We are hopeful the system will give the public more access to things they are entitled to see," LaBarbera said.
     But the question of whether to charge for public documents online has not been decided.
     "We're waiting on statewide rules on public access to documents, but conceivably the public will be able to access a lot more information online," said court executive Matherly.
     California courts have so far fallen into two camps, divided between north and south, on whether to charge for public documents on the web.
     Southern California courts in San Diego, Riverside, Orange, San Bernardino and Los Angeles charge substantial fees to the public for online documents.
     Northern California courts in Sacramento, San Mateo, Santa Clara, Alameda and San Francisco post documents online for free.
     On the separate matter of courthouse operations, Judge LaBarbera pressed the point that the court would operate more efficiently as a result of the new e-filing system.
     "It will decrease staff time to enter cases and attorney time in appearances and calendaring," he said, emphasizing the costs to retrieve, process or find cases in hard-copy format.
     While e-filing is not common in California courts, it has been adopted by a large number of federal courts where districts have individually adapted rules for e-filing much as they shaped local rules for paper filing.
     But, contrary to the promises of e-filing vendors, officials in big federal courts such as Los Angeles have disputed the cost benefits of e-filing, noting that a large number of modestly paid clerks were replaced by a smaller number of much more highly paid technical staff, with little overall savings in cost.
     Orange County Superior Court is one of the few CCMS courts in California and the only California court where e-filing is mandatory. It has fired workers from its records room, but the court has hired so many technical employees that, in a point made by an Orange County judge, there is a one-to-one ratio between technical staff and judges.
     One of the goals of the defunct CCMS project was to allow e-filing but also to centralize filing procedures and trial court statistics, and that is a benefit that will now come from the new Odyssey system, said Matherly.
     "A judge will ask, 'How many of this type of case do we have?'" Matherly said. With Odyssey, the court will have up-to-date figures on the numbers of tort, theft or any other category of case the court handles.
     In the end, said the court's leaders, the decision to go with the Odyssey system was relatively easy.
     Tyler Technologies beat out CourtView Justice Solutions, ISD Corp. and Sustain Technologies Inc. because of very strong recommendations from other courts and because the cost proposals were not really comparable, according to Matherly.
     Instead of charging annual licensing fees, Tyler is charging San Luis Obispo a fixed one-time cost. Matherly also said the license allows the addition of an unlimited number of users.
     "They were reasonable and believable," Matherly said of Tyler, while its rivals had additional burdens hidden in the form of on-going licensing fees and support costs.
     "The AOC was not terribly involved in the decision," she added. "They assisted us. They participated in the scoring and we took their input, but it was our decision."
     She said she had talked to courts across the U.S. and in Canada, devoting several days to phone conversations with clerks currently using Tyler's system.
     "References were one of the biggest reasons," she said in explaining the court's decision.
     "Other court administrators gave it a 10 plus," she said, and many told her that, "Tyler came in on time and on budget."
     And after San Luis Obispo's experience trying to get started with the now-defunct, AOC-backed CCMS, she said, "So far, compared with CCMS, this process has been painless."
     More details on what is involved in migrating the court's old systems onto the Odyssey platform will be worked out over the next few weeks when the fit analysis currently being conducted with Tyler is complete. But the new system is expected to be up and running in 2014.
     "All the old systems are so difficult," Matherly said. "The staff will be very happy to move to the new system."
     Judge LaBarbera said of the imminent transition: "It's a little scary, but the staff is very excited, energetic, hopeful and optimistic."