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Mass. courts step into digital era

Few institutions have moved slower than state court systems when it comes to embracing the digital era.

But in a small step toward joining the age of the Internet, Massachusetts courts will begin a pilot program to allow lawyers to file legal papers electronically, gradually moving the state from reliance on the reams of paper that lawyers, judges, and clerks still lug around courthouses.

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While it may be a surprise to office workers whose daily communication centers around e-mail, Massachusetts is not alone in being sluggish when it comes to adopting electronic filing systems. So far, only a handful of other state court systems have moved to e-filing systems across all their civil courts.

“One of the problems is that we really don’t get investment money to make a big leap forward,” said Jim McMillan, a technology consultant for the National Center for State Courts in Williamsburg, Va.

Still, some states have invested heavily in creating online portals for court systems to give lawyers and the public greater access to legal documents. Florida and Texas have led the way in making records more accessible over the Web. The federal court system first launched its electronic records management system in 1988.

But for some states, such as Massachusetts, strained budgets and the massive infrastructure overhaul needed to make the leap to e-filing systems have kept them from moving faster to embrace new technologies, said McMillan.

Massachusetts will start out small. It expects to turn on its e-filing system for three state appellate courts and three trial courts this summer. If the pilot project is successful, the state courts plan to add more courts to the system in the near future.

‘Digital storage will save the courts, attorneys, and the public significant amounts of money.’

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The e-filing system is part of a broader road map adopted in 2013 to expand the use of technology in Massachusetts courts. For example, the public will eventually be able to view filed court documents online, as is common in the federal judiciary.

“Digital storage will save the courts, attorneys, and the public significant amounts of money, and e-filing is an important step in that direction,” Massachusetts Trial Court administrator Harry Spence said in a statement.

The courts have also been looking for new ways to do more with less. Over the past six years, the Massachusetts Trial Court staff has dropped from roughly 7,500 employees to 6,400 today. So electronic filing should also lessen the work load on the court staff.

“That’s one reason why technology and innovation is so important to the court,” said Jennifer Donahue , spokeswoman for the Trial Court.

The software for the e-filing system is being installed by the Texas firm Tyler Technologies Inc. It will absorb the cost of the installation but plans on making money from the service through the fees that lawyers pay when they file cases electronically. It will cost lawyers $7 to file a case electronically.

Typically, these systems do not charge the public for accessing court records but may charge fees to be able to print documents.

Lawyers in Massachusetts welcomed the new technology, saying it will require far fewer trips to the courthouse, and less waiting on court staff to process their filings.

“This is probably going to be easier on both sides because court personnel won’t have to spend as much time manually inputting cases,” said Andrew Botti, a lawyer in Woburn with the McLane Law Firm. “It just makes sense.”

Michael B. Farrell can be reached at michael.farrell@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeMBFarrell.
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