Two Texas courts share a paperless path forward
Paper storage nightmares are not uncommon among courts across the country. As court staff create, copy and shuttle documents, full drawers become full cabinets, which become full rooms. Significant time, money are spent solving storage issues – not to mention the headaches caused by inefficient organizational systems.
Two Texas counties, some 200 miles apart, not only faced this common problem, they arrived at the same solution. Both Tom Green and Parker counties realized going paperless was the only way to avoid the cost and hassle of building or renting storage space. By eliminating paper processes almost entirely, the counties not only freed up space – Tom Green County cleared a full storage room and will turn it into a new courtroom – both learned how to work smarter.
Storage Search Shelved
Parker County, home to 117,000 residents, handles nearly 3,000 civil and criminal cases each year. With storage space for the district court’s legal documents approaching full capacity, the clerk had to do something, and fast. “We process around 500 documents per week,” District Clerk Sharena Gilliland says, “and the paper had to go somewhere.”
To escape the imminent storage nightmare and go paperless, the county adopted a new, modern case management software solution. The transition to a more efficient, electronic way to manage cases had multiple benefits.
“Right away,” Gilliland notes, “we suspended our search for off-site storage and put the associated costs back into the budget.” The money savings continued with drastically reduced costs for paper, copier maintenance, and supplies. The savings on case jackets alone is between $5,000 and $7,000 annually. Orders for two to three reems of paper per week have stopped.
The new technology has held the largest budget driver – personnel – steady by enabling Parker County to keep pace with growing case filings without significant new hires. Staying on-site also immediately eliminated liability concerns around file degradation and document security in case of natural disaster.
Increased Speed, Decreased Hassles
“Our entire workflow has changed,” Gilliland explains. “We’ve gone from complex to simple processes across the board. Staff no longer have to upload everything, print it out, process the paper, then go back and process it electronically. Even simple things like no longer searching for files and carrying them by hand from desk to desk have made a huge impact.” In addition, court proceedings move along without interruption, as there is no longer a need to interrupt court and bring files to the bench.
Processes once conducted over email are now becoming automated, particularly with communications between the county jail and the constable’s office. “One of the biggest benefits, in my opinion,” Gilliland says, “is that that the employees’ day-to-day work lives are so much easier. Staff is newly empowered to answer customer questions on the spot, because everyone has access to files from any location at any time.”
Storage Room Becomes Courtroom
Tom Green County is nearly identical to Parker in population and caseload. The county not only chose the same new software solution to go paperless, it digitized its existing records such that it emptied an entire room. The open space is set to become part of a new courtroom in an innovative renovation project that will result in better, more efficient constituent service.
“Our storage room was just crammed with file cabinets,” Sheri Woodfin, Tom Green County District Clerk, says. “You couldn’t even move in there, let alone find a document you were looking for. The new courtroom will hold up to 120 people, giving us greater ability to serve our residents.”
Reaching the Bench
Improved efficiencies extend beyond the office for Tom Green County and reach important justice partners including judges. Because documents are filed electronically, they can be shared with the presiding judge in real time. This eliminates piles of paper going back and forth to the courtroom, including staff having to hand-carry last minute filings to the bench during a proceeding. Now, when staff uploads a document, the judge sees it immediately.
“Our judges are tech savvy, fully supportive, and appreciate the efficiencies we’ve gained,” Woodfin says. “Once we went paperless, the files were no longer needed as the judges began to use and rely on the images of those files in the new system.” And for the county, Texas’ implementation of statewide e-filing was smooth sailing, because the software solution was the same and fully integrated.
“This is how government should work,” Woodfin says.
Rusty Smith is the president of the Courts and Justice Division of Tyler Technologies