Justice Served

Missouri system lets users search docket entries, parties, judgments and charges online.

by / September 26, 2002
Case.net, an integral part of Missouri's statewide court automation system, represents the realization a broad vision dedicated to openness and easy access to court information.

That vision was laid out in the latter half of the 1990s by a state government commission and Missouri's Supreme Court. "They initially started out, and still today, emphasize the elements of service, justice and of access - all three of which radiate toward the openness of the courts," said Jim Roggero, director of Information Technology for the Supreme Court. "With that vision in mind, we internally developed the Case.net operation that allows anyone with Internet access to reach in and get public information from the courts."

Case.net gives residents access to the Missouri State Courts Automated Case Management System. From the Case.net Web site , citizens make inquiries on a range of case records, including docket entries, parties, judgments and charges in public court. The site states, "Only courts that have implemented the case management software as part of the Missouri Court Automation Project, and only cases that have been deemed public under the Missouri Revised Statutes can be accessed through Case.net."

The goal was the creation of "an integrated court system that renders geography largely irrelevant and presents a modern justice system with reduced costs to the litigant and taxpayer, with greater efficiency, wider access and enhanced accountability."

Much of that has been accomplished - so far about half of all courts in the state use the automated system.

The state originally awarded a contract for a statewide case management system to Affiliated Computer Services Inc., of Dallas (formerly SCT). Pilot projects were launched in 1997, and by early 2001, the system had been rolled out to more than 53 courts. All circuit, associate and appellate courts are slated for automation by 2004.

From its inception, the project was designed with input from data processing staff in the courts, court clerks and judges throughout the state. "It has been a complete team effort by the courts, the court personnel and our vendors - all of them working hard to make the courts more accessible to the people we serve," Roggero said. "This kind of thing can't be done in a vacuum."

Circuit Approach
In part, Case.net's innovation lies in the system's organization. "I wish we could get royalties because our vender actually took our approach and is now selling it as part of their product line," Roggero said.

The system operates on a circuit court basis; anywhere from one to five counties are in one circuit, each of which has its own data repository, or production server, that houses its information. In searching for information, a user can go directly to that server and get material from any one of the courts in that circuit. As such, data retrieval is rapid.

There also is a statewide depository allowing users to conduct statewide searches. Moreover, the system is name based, so anyone, including court personnel, can look for an individual and see where else he or she has fallen in the court process. Not only does this make the system user-friendly, it also enhances the court's ability to track how people are involved in justice proceedings throughout the state.

The court faced several challenges in developing the system. First, it had to prove that locating production servers in the circuits would work. Second, the tremendous security within the case management system had to be extended to the Internet-accessible Case.net. "What you don't want is have a closed case, such as a juvenile case, go on the Internet," Roggero said. "That is something that we just won't stand for. So the security aspect here is really critical."

A final challenge was designing the system so that an electronic filing feature could be added later on. "Case.net, the case management system, and our infrastructure are all built to accommodate electronic filing," Roggero said.

This means that citizens one day will reach the court, file documentation electronically, have it processed electronically and receive physical receipts showing an action was taken. The electronic filing then would travel through the jurisprudence process, a decision would be rendered, and the individual could go through the Internet to review the process. "It will be a complete loop electronically," Roggero said.

Fully utilizing the new system involved a learning curve in some courts. "Some of our courts had no technology whatsoever, so some people think that those courts take the longest to get up to speed," Roggero said. "Actually they are our quickest courts to come up to speed. It is those courts that previously had their own private system where there is more of a transitional curve."

Once courts make the transition, however, they find that the new system simplifies case processing. One reason is the new system captures so much information on the front end, making later manipulation and sharing of information easier. "That highlights another critical aspect of what we are doing," Roggero said. "We wanted to share information with people like Highway Patrol, the Department of Revenue and Social Services - those services [that] need information we have."

Immediate Success
Roggero said the court and public response to the system has been unbelievably positive. "I don't need my help desk to come in and say we are down on Case.net. I know it is down from the reaction of the public. It is used that much."

He cites an example from an attorney living in the southern part of Missouri. A client called the attorney after a positive development in his case. The attorney told him, "Well, I haven't contacted the court yet. I need to go over there and get the information."

The client replied, "Why? I just got it down from the Internet. I know exactly what's happening. You don't even know what's happened to my case?"

The attorney later commented to Roggero, "I like this system, but boy, it really hits home when clients call knowing more about the disposition of their case than I do."

Beyond such examples of rapid information access, other parts of system are already improving efficiency, which is one prime objective. Fine collection within the counties is now centralized in Jefferson City, with money going back out to the counties.

"So there are a number of spin-offs here that have been accomplished within the state that you don't hear too much about, but are very important part of the whole process," Roggero added. "That's something else that we're proud of - the fact that Case.net ties into all aspects of the court operation, from probate to civil to criminal, to even the financials. So you literally have the full prospectus of the court operation available online."
Blake Harris Editor
Platforms & Programs