Small Claims in Orleans Go Digital
Most clerks enter a typical courtroom session carrying a heavy load of case files.
But that’s not the case anymore at the Orleans District Court’s small claims session, which has been paperless since July 2016.
“I find that court users’ level of frustration has gone way down,” says Clerk-Magistrate Marion Broidrick, who now walks into her small claims session on Thursday mornings armed with just a pen and small notebook.
“The new digitized process makes people feel more comfortable. Right away, they see that I have all the information related to their case,” says Clerk Broidrick, who adds that being able to access MassCourts during sessions also helps her spot and fix any case-related information that’s missing. “It gives litigants a sense of relief knowing that the court has what it needs to make the right decision.”
The Orleans court, which handles 850 small claims cases a year, has gone from file folders to electronic documents that are first scanned and entered into MassCourts, the Trial Court’s computerized records system. Forms are shredded once they are scanned. By the end of this fiscal year, court users will be able to file small claims online using fillable PDF forms, further reducing the need for paper forms.
The Orleans pilot, led by Clerk Broidrick, took three months to go from idea to reality. Rounding off the team are Assistant Clerk Magistrate Delores Bowman, a MassCourts “super user” and trainer; and Miriam Brady, Regional Case Coordinator for the District Court. Kailey Bishop, Performance Analyst for Region One of the District Court’s Civil Claims Unit, provided additional expertise and guidance to get the project up and running.
The team knew that to make the move from paper to digital files, they needed scanning capabilities to be able to quickly and accurately enter small claims codes in MassCourts. District Court Deputy Court Administrator Phil McCue worked with the Fiscal Department to procure desktop scanners, critical tools needed to get the job done.
Before the pilot, the court had to create two versions of each case: a paper case file and a twin digital version in MassCourts. The time-consuming, two-step process required frequent retrieval and storage of paper files. “Now, we’re just working with the digital file,” says Clerk Broidrick.
When a court user comes into the courthouse - for example, a creditor needing to do research - they can access the MassCourts system using the PC at the counter in the Clerk's Office.
Clerk Broidrick says that her staff welcomes the digital innovations - and so do court users.
“I’ll never forget announcing in that first digitized session that we were doing 'an experiment of small claims on the computer system,'” she remembers. “I was greeted with dead silence. That was a first! Everyone was enthralled. People went out of their way to be helpful and provide information, and not interrupt each other. I’d never seen that level of cooperation before.”
Clerk Broidrick adds that having a digital record of each case means that she can also provide litigants with answers right away on specific details such as creditor information, without having to search for the physical file. Sessions run smoother and more efficiently than before, thanks to the digitized process.
Besides increasing efficiencies, such as eliminating the need for employees to move and store thousands of paper files, the innovations reduce paper and postage costs.
DCA McCue adds that the initiative in Orleans has also “given us an idea of what it’s like to be paperless.” He notes that the project has enabled the department to get a sense of how a digital system would work, and to know what questions to ask the Judicial Information Services Department (JISD) when they’ve needed help.
“Clerk Broidrick is focused on some great ideas,” says DCA McCue. “She’s helped the District Court Department prepare for e-filing and a digitized world.”
Next up: Automatically generated digital files. JISD is working with the District Court now to automatically create a PDF of court orders issued at small claims sessions. Once scanned into the system, the digital order would attach to the docket entry in MassCourts. Electronic notifications to lawyers handling small claims and other civil cases are also in the works. The notifications will include notice of hearing dates and when decisions are made.
The SJC has just requested comments on Rule 1:11 on Retention of Court Records. The updated rule will allow the courts to destroy all paper records once they are scanned. Revised Rule 1:11 will also enable the courts to send email notices to small claims litigants instead of mailing or calling.
Want to go digital? If your court is interested in pursuing digital small claims and/or e-filing, please contact your District Court’s Regional Coordinator.
The Future is Here, and It’s Digital...The Trial Court recently expanded its Electronic Case Filing (e-filing) initiative. After successful pilots in four divisions of the District Court, Probate and Family Court and Boston Municipal Court, JISD is now adding more courts and case types to the program.
As of March 2017, the following Trial Court sites accept these electronically-filed case types:
District Court Sites: Attleboro, Brookline, Dedham, Edgartown, Fall River, New Bedford, Quincy, Stoughton, Taunton, Worcester, Wrentham
District Court Case Types: Civil, Small Claims, Supplementary Process
Probate and Family Court Sites: Bristol, Dukes, Essex, Norfolk
Probate and Family Court Case Types: Estates & Administration, Adult Guardianship, 1B Divorce Actions