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Courting online access

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Last November the Montana Supreme Court ordered its Commission on Technology to get busy developing a set of rules to govern electronic access to court records. Montana, like many mostly-rural states, is behind the Internet curve when it comes to allowing the public to access court records online. In most cases, if someone in, say, Missoula County wanted access to court records in Sheridan County, they’d have to fork over a fee for copies and then hurry up and wait for the written request to be processed through the mail.

But last month the state took a step that could bring the two counties’ courthouses closer together—digitally speaking—when the technology commission released its draft Model Access Rules for public comment. The rules would pave the way for the development of a statewide system that will one day make court records in all 56 Montana counties available at the click of a mouse.

“One of the things we need before we can design a system is to know what kinds of documents will be made available,” says Karen Nelson, director of information technology for the Montana Supreme Court.

The draft guidelines lay out five types of court records that should be given the highest priority for remote access by the public, including: litigant/party indexes to cases; listings of new case filings; registers showing what documents have been filed in a case; calendars or dockets of court proceedings; and judgments, orders or decrees in cases and liens affecting title to real property.

Nelson says once the guidelines are adopted, counties can begin implementing the technology. She says if and when the necessary funding is made available, all of Montana’s 56 counties could be online within three years.

“The biggest barrier is funding,” she says, adding that Montana courts will be seeking additional funding in the next legislative session.

In the meantime, the draft rules are available and open for public comment until August 23 at http://www.courts.mt.gov/supreme/proprules.asp.

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