The progress at the courthouse is largely the result of a new state mandate that has expanded paperless filing across Alabama, as well as recently enacted “stop-gap” financial measures, court officials said.
The changes were made to help deal with budget cuts and staff reductions that many feared would leave courthouses statewide buried in backed-up paperwork, slowing the wheels of justice in criminal and civil cases. Now, at least locally, it seems these and other measures have kept the worst predictions from coming true. But local officials say the fixes may not help forever.
“It takes a long time to see how things are going to go,” Circuit Clerk Ted Hooks said. “But I’m optimistic.”
First in the list of changes that have made the local courthouse more efficient: a new order from the state chief justice that requires all attorneys to file case documents online rather than in paper.
Outgoing Chief Justice Chuck Malone signed the electronic-filing order in September, necessitating the online submission of documents filed in all civil divisions of circuit and district courts and erasing the need for duplicate printed copies of those documents.
The order went into effect Oct. 1, but local attorneys and judges began adhering to it before that, court officials said.
As a result, the understaffed clerk’s offices at the Calhoun County Courthouse have had increasingly less paper to handle, and reduced delays in the processing of many civil cases, Hooks said. For example, he said, currently there is only a two-week delay in processing cases that include garnishments — civil matters in which a judge has ordered a defendant to pay the plaintiff a certain amount of money each time the defendant gets a paycheck.
As recently as March, as court officials struggled with a full-time staff slashed in half by state budget cuts, there had been a four-month delay in sending out those garnishment checks.
“It’s a convenience for the attorneys and for us,” deputy circuit clerk Kim McCarson said of the mandatory e-filing. “We don’t have to spend so much time filing paper, waiting on orders, et cetera.”
Local court officials said they couldn’t put a number on the amount of paperwork that has been cut since mandatory e-filing went to effect. But anecdotally, officials said, clerks have caught up on divorce filings — which used to have up to a 24-month processing delay — and on most of the paperwork generated in small claims court.
State Administrative Office of Courts officials estimate that clerks can file documents online at least 17 minutes faster than they do on paper. E-filing takes about three minutes per complaint, AOC spokesman Dean Hartzog said. Filing just one paper complaint can take as long as 20 minutes, he said.
Most judges at the courthouse and local lawyers in recent years were already getting into the habit e-filing through Alacourt.gov, McCarson said. The mandate, he said, has increased usage and “put everybody on the same page.”
Nearly 13,000 out of 18,000 state attorneys were already registered for on the Alafile e-filing system, Hartzog said.
However, the mandate has “allowed for greater e-filing capability,” he said.
Aundrea Mann, president of the Calhoun-Cleburne Bar Association, said many local attorneys had only just started e-filing documents as a result of the new mandate.
“I’ve been in my current job for two years; before I came to this position I did not use it,” said Mann, an attorney with Legal Services Alabama.
In addition to the paperless filing, Hooks said other “stop-gap” financial measures have helped to pay for temporary employees to work at the courthouse, filling in some of the holes left behind by the full-timers who were laid off in summer 2011.
Thirteen full-time workers lost their jobs in the wake of the $13.1 million budget deficit between fiscal 2011 and 2012, but Hooks was able to hire four part-timers to help out, drawing from a dwindling pot of money called the clerk’s fund.
That fund, which currently has a balance of $14,000 and is drawn mainly from copying fees at the courthouse, has been somewhat reinforced by new laws that appropriate money to the clerk’s offices from $15 to $45 fee increases on traffic tickets and bail bonds.
Those laws were enacted in June and August, and so far have raised roughly $37,000 for the cash-strapped clerk’s offices, Hooks said.
Last month, some $426 went to his office as a result of the $35 bail bonds fee increase.
“It hasn’t generated enough money yet that we could hire another employee,” Hooks said. “But I think that it will.”
Perhaps more importantly, court officials said, was a September referendum by which Alabama residents voted to transfer $437 million per year for three years from the Alabama Trust Fund to the state’s General Fund.
If that hadn’t passed, Hooks said, the state court system would likely have lost more jobs, pushing the Calhoun County Courthouse and others into deeper delays.
“That kept us from having further layoffs, kept us at status quo,” Hooks said. “And that was wonderful not to lay off any more people, because we’re already at half the people we really need.”
In the meantime, some attorneys recognized the mandatory e-filing may be more difficult for their colleagues who until now have not familiarized themselves with the online system.
“It complicates things for the lawyer who really has not embraced the digital era, because they have to learn a little bit about this thing called the Internet,” said Phillip McCallum, a Birmingham attorney and president of the state bar association. “But there are some training mechanisms that are put in place.”
Both the Administrative Office of Courts and the Alabama State Bar Association have offered to help attorneys learn how to use the Alacourt.gov system, McCallum said.
If Anniston defense lawyer Bill Broome didn’t have a secretary who filed his motions for him, he might have needed that kind of assistance in the wake of the new order.
Broome said he is not savvy with the e-filing technology, but still has filed his cases that way for years, thanks to his technologically capable employee.
“I couldn’t do it myself. I’m one of the older guys now; there’s got to be some folks out there that just don’t like the change, period,” Broome said.
Still, he said, e-filing is an important, time-saving tool, something that is necessary in light of the budget cuts and the staffing struggles that courthouses across the state have faced.
“It’s helpful for lawyers, too,” Broom said. “I don’t have to walk to the courthouse to file something; it saves postage. I don’t have to mail the DA a service copy of whatever I’m filing. Judges see something immediately when I file it.
“It saves time.”