By Steve Woodhouse Editor
The Journal Express
---- — Polk County is in the middle of transitioning all of its court records to a digital format. Other counties will follow as the year progresses, but this change will come to Marion County either late this year or in early 2014.
“The rest of us are just kind of waiting,” Marion County Clerk of Court Carol Sage said. Polk County converted its civil court records in May and the criminal records are expected to go digital in August. July or August may also be the first time clerks, attorneys and other frequent filers in Marion County may have the opportunity to be trained on the new system.
Marion County is in Iowa Judicial District 5A, and Sage said this county will be the last in that district to go digital. When the conversion is made, all new filings will be done electronically. Some pending cases – dependent upon their age/status – may also be digitized. Documents in these cases will be scanned into the computer.
The process will be similar when the full conversion is made. PDF files will be made of each document to allow easy e-mail transfer. Attorneys, judges and clerks will be given usernames and passwords to allow them access to the electronic database.
“Nobody can file anything without a registration or password,” Sage said. When documents are submitted, they will be stored in a virtual “holding bin.” Hard copies are currently stored in bins until they can get filed. The courtrooms in Marion County are already being outfitted for wireless Internet access, to allow filing to be done quickly.
The public at large will still have access to the current Iowa Courts Online website. However, the public will only be able to access the new electronic records through public terminals at the courthouse. Sage believes there will be three terminals for this in Marion County.
“They’ve been working on this a long, long time,” Sage said. One of the reasons for this, beyond the ease and reduced paper costs, is that it will allow more time for clerks to assist the public.
Concern with paper files is that storage space is limited, and Marion County is running out of room. Archived court files, stored in a warehouse, are also deteriorating and suffering other damage.
“There’s no place to go with these things,” Sage said.
She believes the electronic records will make the process easier for everyone involved. The system may move faster if judges can open files remotely to sign them, instead of waiting until they can physically be in the county from which the case originates.
“We’re only guaranteed a judge one day a week,” Sage said. Forms can be immediately submitted as well. “That will really improve the flow of everything.”
Anytime records are kept electronically, or a process becomes dependent upon a computer, there is always the risk of it being lost or hacked. Sage does not believe that the Iowa Judicial Branch is concerned about hacking, as the current website has been in existence since 1991, and to her knowledge there has not been a security breach.
Court records can also become lengthy. Hard copies, for even a single case, can fill multiple file folders. Sage does not foresee any issues with electronic file sizes becoming too large, as they can be “zipped” to reduce the file size.
“It’s going to be great,” Sage said of the transfer. She said the first couple of weeks may be rough, but she is sure her staff and other court officials will quickly adapt.
Look for more on the transfer to electronic court records in the coming months.