Lindsay Stafford Mader 2014-10-25 16:33:21
Old software, piles of paper, and an e-filing mandate triggered officials in Montgomery County to get serious about going digital E-FILING Spanning more than 260,000 square miles of land, Texas contains 254 counties that range from the metropolitan and bustling to the rural and remote. So while some local governments and court systems have technologically savvy infrastructures, others have not yet implemented modern, digital operations. And many counties are somewhere in between. Montgomery County is one such local government in transition. Encompassing the city of Conroe, about 45 miles north of Houston, and a majority of the Woodlands, the county has a population of approximately 485,000. It started its ongoing move away from paper, “homegrown” computer systems, and outdated software in 2012. Like other Texas counties, Montgomery had already been scanning and digitally storing all incoming documents, but until recently, it depended on 20-year-old software that did not support Windows and could not electronically move files to one location accessible by all departments. “We knew we needed to do a refresh on these systems,” said Marshall Shirley, the county’s IT director. It has been an incremental process, starting with new laptops for sheriff patrol cars and followed by new software for courts and clerks in 2013 and 2014. By 2015, the county aims to have new software for the jail system and the district and county attorneys, as well as to complete the digitizing, mapping, and migrating of criminal data—even though the Supreme Court has not yet mandated e-filing for these cases. (Montgomery County met its July 2014 e-filing deadline for civil cases several months early.) When everything is in place, Montgomery County’s IT department plans to integrate the various systems and enable cross-department flow of data, ideally in real time. Funding for the project—about $1.57 million each year—is appropriated through the county’s budget, and so far the new systems have cost just under $6.5 million. But county employees say these efforts are increasing efficiencies— and will also save money in the long run. Patrice McDonald, judge of Montgomery County Court at Law No. 3, recently recalled the paper case files that she would box up at the end of the day for evening homework and those paper dockets that waited for her in the morning. “I’m a family judge, and we have a very paper intensive caseload,” McDonald said. “We would have clerks and coordinators toting files back and forth all day long in, essentially, grocery carts.” With the recent transition, her judicial life has vastly improved. “It’s completely changed the way we work—all for the better in my opinion. And I’m an old judge, and we tend to come a bit more slowly to technology changes. I would say that my learning curve was probably 30 days or so, and now I can’t even remember doing it a different way. I think, too, that because the information is so easily accessible, we do better work.” While Montgomery County has long had the desire to be more digital, McDonald said that the Supreme Court’s 2012 directive helped quicken the pace. “I think the e-file mandate streamlined the process. It did push us along.” Now the courthouse even has a kiosk that attorneys can use to e-file their documents before leaving the building. For those counties that are just getting started or are considering decreasing their dependency on paper, Shirley said the key is ensuring that every stakeholder has a common vision of what needs to be achieved. “We all talk about integrated justice, and realistically we all want some level of integration,” Shirley said. “But as you look across all the different stakeholders—from law enforcement and the DA to the clerks and the courts— they all have their own business processes that need their requirements to be met. And when you look at the big picture, there are typically some trade-offs that have to be decided upon. That common goal—consensus building— is what helps you get through that.” TEXAS E-FILING FUN FACTS • An average of 18,000 filings are received each day. • Some 3.5 million filings will be handled in 2014. • Approximately 24 million pages of paper will be saved in 2014—that’s 25times the height of the Texas Capitol building. • There are more than 82,000 registered users. • 109 counties and 290 courts using the system.
Published by State Bar of Texas. View All Articles.
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