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Milwaukee County moving toward digital document storage (UPDATE)

By: Jack Zemlicka, [email protected]//September 27, 2011//

Milwaukee County moving toward digital document storage (UPDATE)

By: Jack Zemlicka, [email protected]//September 27, 2011//

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The Milwaukee County court system could save upward of $250,000 annually with an electronic case filing system, but the move could mean less work for court staff members.

John Barrett, Milwaukee County’s clerk of court, said he’s working with state court officials on implementing an e-filing system for court documents by Jan. 1. The move will allow the court to save money on document storage costs, he said, but could also lead to some staff member cuts.

“I do see that as a potential outcome,” he said, “to create some savings.”

Barrett said the court has between five and 10 staff members who work as “file shaggers,” retrieving case files for judges and litigants.

He would not guess as to how many positions might be eliminated if e-filing takes hold. Barrett said there is a chance, however, that those staff members could simply take on other responsibilities in the court instead, such as scanning incoming paper files from pro se litigants to minimize storage costs.

“We have checked into bulk scanning our documents and the front-loaded costs are prohibitive,” Barrett said. “If the scanning is not done internally, the scanning companies charge retrieval costs so we would be no better off.”

Currently, the county spends about $250,000 each year on case storage, in addition to an $8 service charge anytime individuals request an off-site file from the facility managed by CH Coakley & Co.

“We have to keep files for up to 75 years,” Barrett said. “The more we can put in electronic form, we can save that money in storage costs.”

E-filing likely won’t transform the court’s process over night, however, said Wendy Hoefert, deputy court clerk for the Washington County Circuit Court.

Washington County began offering e-filing of small claims cases in 2005, she said, before adding civil filings in 2008 and some family law cases this year.

Only 5 percent of small claims cases (810 of 15,391) and 3 percent of civil cases (162 of 6,066) have been filed electronically since the switch, Hoefert said.

“Only a few attorneys have been filing them,” she said. “In Milwaukee County, I think it might make a bigger difference if those same attorneys have bigger caseloads there.”

Washington County scans the bulk of its paper documents, she said, so most files are available online for attorneys and litigants.

“We don’t have to stop what we’re doing and go find a file,” Hoefert said. “With a click, people can look at a document.”

In 2008, the Wisconsin Supreme Court formalized voluntary e-filing in the state circuit courts.

Sixteen counties currently allow some form of e-filing of case files, mainly for small claims matters.

According to the state Supreme Court rule, electronically filed documents can be viewed only by the attorneys or parties to the case and will not be available to the general public on the Wisconsin Circuit Court Access website.

Electronic signatures are provided for attorneys, self-represented parties and court officials.

Barrett said he envisions the system in Milwaukee starting with small claims actions, but eventually including all case types.

“We have some large filers there that could achieve some benefits, I think, by doing this electronically,” he said. “The benefit for their office is they don’t have to send a runner down.”

But Milwaukee lawyer Tristan Pettit questioned if e-filing will make much of a dent in the paper filings at Milwaukee’s high-volume small claims court.

In his experience representing landlords in evictions, Pettit said, tenants more often than not are pro se and won’t take the time to e-file.

“To me, Small Claims seems like the worst place to go (with e-filing),” he said. “You are dealing with so many pro se tenants, who are either not going to be able to do it, or are going to do it the old fashioned way.”


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