(CN) — It has been 15 years since the state of Mississippi launched its electronic case management and filing system for courts and it is still not fully implemented.
It has also been nearly two years since the expiration of a July 2021 deadline established by state lawmakers, but it may take another two years to expand the system to all 82 circuit courts, according to data released in May by Mississippi Electronic Courts, or MEC.
Still, more than 82% of the state’s population is currently served by at least some portion of the system and remaining implementations in 2023 should push that number closer to 90%.
MEC was authorized by the Legislature in 2005 and is based on Public Access to Court Electronic Records, or PACER, the same system employed by federal courts since 2001. MEC was first implemented in the Madison County Chancery Clerk’s office in May 2008, but it has since expanded to incorporate chancery courts in at least 78 of the state’s 82 counties, representing about 96% of the population.
Implementations in the final four chancery courts — Sunflower, Benton, Tippah and Lafayette counties — are scheduled to be complete by June 19. Chancery courts resolve disputes over domestic matters, equity cases and some juvenile affairs.
Similar progress has been made in 19 of the state’s 24 county courts, where more than 88% of the population is now covered by services offered by MEC. County courts, which typically hear juvenile cases, eminent domain proceedings and minor criminal and civil matters, are only present in 24 of Mississippi’s 82 counties, although two new courts were created in 2023 in Lafayette and Oktibbeha counties. As of March 31 those two remained offline, along with courts in Lowndes, Leflore and Adams counties.
The biggest gap in coverage remains in circuit courts, where only 56 of 82 courts host civil filings on MEC and only 52 of 82 courts host criminal filings on MEC. The population covered by MEC in civil and criminal circuit courts was roughly 80% and 66%, respectively, according to data provided in May. At least six new implementations have been completed in circuit courts in 2023, but 30 remain unscheduled.
The unscheduled implementations include Harrison County, the state’s second most populous, with around 208,000 residents.
Implementation of MEC was assisted with the creation of the Comprehensive Electronic Court Systems Fund, which enabled the Mississippi Supreme Court to develop and maintain the system. The goal is to make all case information immediately available electronically on the internet, with a low-cost and intuitive system.
The Legislature allocated more than $122 million to judiciary and justice programs in 2023, but only $448,000 for programmers, trainers and operators for MEC. The system employs 13 full-time state workers and three contract employees. In the 2022 and 2024 budgets, lawmakers allocated no money toward the system. Other funding is provided by registration and page viewing fees, which are divided equally between MEC and county clerks of the court.
At the end of 2022, MEC had 8,558 registered attorney users, 11,329 non-attorney users and 74 firm administrator users.
They are charged a $10 new account registration fee, a $10 annual account renewal fee, and a 20 cents per-page viewing fee, revenue which is equally split with the court clerks.
Since 2011, MEC has generated usage fees totaling $4,287,568.20, including $2,169,625.40 from the chancery courts and $2,117,942.80 from the circuit and county courts.
Responding to a list of emailed questions, MEC Director Nathan Evans said this week he expects the system to be fully implemented in all courts by June 2025.
“During the 2020 legislative session, the MEC director and the chief justice advised the sponsor(s) of the MEC mandate bill that 74 of the 186 chancery, circuit, and county courts remained to be implemented, and it would be impossible to meet a July 2021 deadline, but it would still be a good idea to mandate the system, even with the one-year deadline,” Evans explained.
He added, “The sponsor(s) were encouraged to provide an additional funding mechanism in the bill to allow AOC/MEC to hire additional programmers and trainers to help speed up implementations, but ultimately the bill that passed into law did not include additional funding. However, the mandate encouraged many courts that otherwise would not have volunteered to use the system to reach out to MEC to go ahead and get in line for implementation.”
Evans also noted training and the process to migrate new courts into MEC typically takes approximately three months per court.
“But since we typically work on legacy systems data for multiple courts at once, we can generally implement one to two courts per month, depending on the size of the court and how long they have been using a third party system for court dockets and documents (and the quality of said data),” he wrote.
There is no uniform case management and document filing system for courts nationwide, so states are free to create their own solutions. In Florida, for example, case files are now free and open to all users inside and outside the state and they may also register for case updates. Third-party, fee-based contract systems are employed by southern states including Texas, Alabama, Louisiana and Georgia.
Mississippi state Senator Brice Wiggins, an attorney and chairman of one of the Senate’s two judiciary committees, said by phone Tuesday that compared to the previous system of no e-filing at all or different e-filing systems for different courts, MEC is “great” and “has changed the practice of law for the better.” He added the system has also proven beneficial for public access to court records and for improving efficiency, but he does have concerns with whether it can keep pace with emerging technologies.
Also, in spite of the fact it will not be fully implemented until 2025, Wiggins said he was satisfied with the pace it has been adopted statewide. He further explained that some delays have been caused by financial and workforce concerns, as a handful of counties have been reluctant to participate until it was mandated.
“The pushback became, ’we don't have the money, we can't do it,’ but in actuality it's the fear of change that is governing that,” Wiggins said. “But people need to accept the change that's coming on and this is where the practice of law is going, not only in Mississippi but everywhere. It's what clients expect.”
This article was edited to correct the number of full-time MEC employees from 16 to 13.Follow @gabetynes
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