Metro

Mass. courts hear pleas for Web access

Data is available on federal system

Journalists, librarians, and others pleaded with Massachusetts court officials Monday afternoon to expand Internet access to court records and data, following in the footsteps of the US government and many states.

But other legal advocates and attorneys warned that putting too much information online could embarrass people or make it harder for them to find housing or jobs.

Nearly two dozen people testified Monday at a rare public hearing on what Massachusetts court records should be open to the public as the courts work to revamp their rules.

Advertisement

Citizens have long enjoyed the right to see most paper records in courthouses across the Commonwealth. But as more and more data has become computerized, court officials are debating what records and data should be available on the Internet. A 20-member committee of judges and other court officials, led by Superior Court Judge Peter Lauriat, has been trying to resolve the debate since November 2013.

Get Metro Headlines in your inbox:
The 10 top local news stories from metro Boston and around New England delivered daily.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

Lauriat said at the meeting that the committee is still drafting its proposal but plans to eventually give the public basic docket information on the Internet to civil cases in superior courts across the state; it has already posted data for superior courts in two counties, as well as civil cases in housing, land, and many other courts. But a spokeswoman said the committee is still wrestling with whether to give the public online access to information on criminal cases and certain types of civil litigation.

Scott Allen, editor of the Globe’s Spotlight investigative team, told committee members that it is currently far too cumbersome for journalists to look up court cases online or obtain data about how the court system is functioning.

For instance, he said the courts refused to provide statistics for a 2011 Globe series that found some judges rarely convicted drunk drivers.

“It’s not just an inconvenience for working journalists,” Allen said. “It’s a disservice to the public.”

Advertisement

Lee Hammel a freelance writer who spent 40 years working for the Telegram & Gazette in Worcester, noted the state courts lag far behind the federal system, called Pacer, in access to documents. Pacer provides both documents and docket information for almost every civil and criminal case online.

“It is hard to understand why the state can’t simply replicate Pacer,” Hammel said.

Melinda Kent, president of the Law Librarians of New England, said providing greater access to online court records could also enable librarians to provide more aid to students, professors, and litigants representing themselves. “This can alleviate the burden on court clerks and other court staff,” she said.

But some organizations cautioned there might be too much information available already.

Lloyd Godson a family law attorney from Lynnfield, expressed concern that many filings in divorces and other cases contain damaging material that could ruin reputations, careers, and relationships.

Advertisement

“I encourage you to limit the public’s access to this material as much as possible,” Godson said.

Esme Caramello, deputy director of the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau said some landlords have blacklisted tenants listed in eviction proceedings online.

And Francisca Fajana, an attorney with the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute in Boston, testified that the “wholesale availability of criminal docket sheets on the court’s website” could undermine laws designed to restrict access to the state’s centralized database of criminal records.

The courts pledged to give the public another opportunity to weigh in after it drafts its proposal later this year.

Todd Wallack can be reached at twallack@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @twallack.