Juggling Public Record Requests – Keep Those Balls in the Air

 

Tim Zarzycki, Senior Account Executive, ImageSoft, Inc.

iStock_000011704687_MediumAmong the multitude of daily tasks performed by court clerks is responding to public requests for records. These records include case files, dockets/summaries of court cases and courtroom proceedings, records about defendants, criminal records, and long email threads, often with photos and videos attached. In addition to explaining court actions and decisions, these records are generally accessible to the public based on state sunshine laws, open records laws or public records laws. In an era of greater scrutiny and demands for transparency, clerks need better ways to handle public record requests.

It’s a juggling act that gets more complicated by the day.

Day-to-day challenges

Giving the public its right of access to public records can be a cumbersome challenge for paper-based courts or courts working without an integrated case management system. It clogs operations and requires scarce resources. In addition to coordinating and maintaining the case file associated with such requests, courts also face such challenges as:

  • Siloed data and documents in each department with incompatible formatting — hunting down documents from multiple departments, locations and filing cabinets puts a burden on government staff and leads to lengthy fulfillment cycles
  • Challenges of tracking and distributing requests, reviewing long email chains, making phone calls and hunting down documents; most tracking systems are spreadsheets that require manual data entry which further consumes staff time
  • Need for a consistent layout for the request packet
  • Need to maintain correspondence with requestor, additional departments
  • Inconsistent/poorly defined request methods
  • Audit trail requirements
  • Protocols for redaction
  • Retention times/discard times/destruction processes with certificates of destruction
  • Fee collection processes
  • Statutory deadlines for providing public records
  • Document security

The right solution

JusticeTech’s public records solutions create a complete package to manage the full scope of public records needs, helping courts meet their legal responsibilities for transparency and open government initiatives. The solutions help court clerks and staff retrieve and bundle documents to meet record requests, provide self-service access to documents and records, automate the request process and redact confidential information. These solutions:

  • Simplify request submission and delivery for constituents
  • Provide comprehensive search for complete request fulfillment
  • Improve process transparency and reporting for better constituent service

Read more about automating request for public records and keep that juggling act in the air.

How are you managing public requests for court records?

 

Court Document Retention

64_flipside

In the interest of full disclosure, let me say, up front, that I believe both ends of the Court Document Retention discussion will be laid to rest and ultimately forgotten over the next five to 10 years, if not sooner. By “both ends” I mean, first, the question of “In what medium (paper, microfiche, or digital) should court records keep particular documents?” and second, “What to do with court documents (regardless of medium) once the retention period expires?”

My reasoning is that societal and governmental trends vis-a-vis public records (and I think, particularly, court records), are rapidly and inexorably moving toward requiring perpetual retention of all documents, particularly as storage costs continue to shrink.

Notwithstanding my (admittedly rosy) prediction though, that is not the world courts live in today. Consequently, there is a lot of effort being expended to remove the paper/michrofiche requirement barrier. As previously discussed, that can’t happen too soon .

Beyond the anachronistic medium requirement, under current laws and policies, courts are going to have to continue to manage which documents to keep and for how long. And rarely considered, but extremely costly, is the flip side of document retention: document purging and disposal once the retention period expires.

Every court knows the pain, expense and conflict involved in purging documents. With paper documents, even the best systems are highly labor-intensive, and usually involve multiple checks, verifications and quality controls to assure that nothing is inadvertently purged that should be kept. First, there is the management to keep track of when files and documents should be purged. It’s not as simple as a one-time calendaring at the case’s conclusion: What if something else happens in the case later to extend the time?

Once identified, in some instances, some documents must be physically removed from the case file while others are left in. In others (if not all for some case types), someone must go through the entire physical file to make sure there is not some “keeper” filed inside by mistake.

Then there’s the question of what to do with all that paper. (By the way, microfiche, being also physical, has corresponding problems). You can’t just toss it in the recycle bin — there are confidentiality considerations. If you outsource (a common solution), the service provider usually has to be bonded, provide security assurances, etc. And, ahem, they charge…

A dirty little secret among many courts is that they don’t actually purge until they have run out of storage space, because the cost of storage space, while not insignificant, is a lot less that the cost of purging in a legally and procedurally acceptable manner.

Given these factors, consider this: Every paper document a court receives or keeps — even if the court does absolutely nothing with it — is creating a downstream expense. Think you’ll move to an Enterprise Content Management (ECM) system and then just go digital “Day Forward”, leaving as many old, sleeping paper dogs (I mean documents) to lie? You might want to take into account what those documents are going to cost to get rid of.

One of the major benefits of ECM, and one that I think gets far too little credit in up-front financial business case development, is that it massively cuts the cost of compliance with the current requirements for document purging and destruction. From the time of receipt or creation, the document can be managed for retention, and ultimately, purging. If the policies change, no problem; the workflow process will be changed and the document correctly managed under the new rules. When the time comes to purge, varying levels of review can be selected and administered. Destruction itself can be securely accomplished, monitored, documented and later audited.

While courts are permitted/required to purge and destroy old documents (and no one but me is predicting that won’t be forever), that fact in itself provides huge, if not independently sufficient, incentive to move as expeditiously as possible to ECM.

Gazing Into the Crystal Ball

The Swami

I recently responded to a survey that asked, among other things, what drivers might affect Paper On Demand becoming close to universal in courts by the year 2025. Given the difficulty of predicting what is likely to happen next week, attempting to make predictions over ten years out seems to be hypothetical in the extreme. Nevertheless, the exercise has some very useful attributes.

For one thing, it allows consideration of what happens after today’s current problems and challenges have been overcome. Quite naturally, we tend to focus on immediate, existing, and short-term barriers (and benefits). Things like anachronistic court rules, implementation expense, resistance to change, and so on dominate our planning.

Likewise, short term benefits – one of the most urgent being financial – tend to be the major areas of focus. Longer- term benefits, such as improved public service, also get attention. All of these factors are motivators that powerfully support the case for migration to paper on demand.

But the existence of good reasons does not always translate to the obvious result. In this case, beyond the known benefits, what reasons, if any, exist that make us believe that paper on demand might be ubiquitous in courts by 2025?

Donning my Swami turban, I came up with the following points:

• Laws and public expectations regarding access, searchability, selective and flexible redaction, and security (both existential and content) of public records will force courts – and all governmental (and most private) entities to maintain all records, including documents, electronically.

• Cost advantages, which are currently arithmetical (up to double the cost of implementation), are rapidly being realized to be geometric (several times the cost of implementation). In the very near future, they will be seen to be exponential (ten times or more of the cost of implementation). Others may disagree with this prediction; I would point out that the savings continue indefinitely into the future. Also, I believe that the changes will be that significant. In fact, I think every current estimate of savings will prove to be too conservative; but we’ll see.

The key driver here will be automated workflow, which is simply not practical with physical documents at anything like the scale of electronic documents. The efficiencies enabled by electronic document management with workflow will be disproportionately due to operational efficiencies made possible versus direct, document-related savings (like storage space, materials, labor-free access, etc.).

• Existent and emergent technologies will increasingly require electronic documents in order to be used, in the same way that online banking requires internet access or printers require electricity. A court still utilizing physical documents in 2025 will be like a court with no electricity in 1940, or a court with no telephones in 1970, or a court with no internet in 2013. It won’t be acceptable.

• Standards, already coalescing, will be mature and ubiquitous.

This list could easily be much longer. And, much as I’d like to think I will have a perfect prediction record, one or more of them may well be wrong. The great thing about surveys like this is that they generate disparate opinions and allow for reasoned discussion and debate. The point of speculating on the farther-out future is not to know in advance what will happen (other than death and taxes, generally impossible) but to get a sense for where things are headed. I for one will be very interested to see the opinions across the community. The consensus will be interesting; and I’m guessing that most will agree the question is not “Whether”, but “When and How” courts become universally paper on demand. As far as the drivers are concerned (as well as the longer-term implications, which I’ll discuss in a future post), if the past is any indication, the more outrageous the prediction, the more likely it is to come true.