Kern County, Calif., Struggles with Online Courts Access

Amid questions about better access to online court records, Kern County officials say that a day is coming when the public will have unfettered access to most county court records over the Internet.

by John Cox, The Bakersfield Californian / November 4, 2019
Shutterstock/Alex Staroseltsev

(TNS) — It frustrates Bakersfield, Calif., attorney Jeff Wise that he can't simply download local court records any time of day in exchange for a modest fee.

Federal courts allow it. So does Los Angeles County's court system. But if Wise wants immediate access to Kern County Superior Court's full library of digital records, he has to stand at one of three computerized public terminals in the lobby of the courthouse on Truxtun Avenue in downtown Bakersfield.

Even then, if he needs a printed copy of a record, he pays 50 cents per page.

"That bothers me, too, that you have to pay to get a public record ... that's available digitally," said Wise, who practices civil, family and some criminal defense law.

Have patience, local officials say: A day is coming when the public will have unfettered access to most county court records over the internet.

But how soon that access might be granted, and how much it will cost, they declined to say. In the meantime, Kern County Superior Court recently began charging some parties new fees for retrieving and making copies of records that now must be filed digitally.

Uneven Access

The situation highlights inconsistencies in the state's superior court system. Although California's courts system has a policy of encouraging remote access to superior court records, and it has set uniform fees for record retrieval and copies, the state Judicial Council leaves it up to local courts to decide how and when they make internet access available.

In Kern, the bigger priority now is moving criminal records over to a new system for managing digital court documents.

"After that project is complete, we can focus on allowing the public direct remote access to both criminal and civil case records," Kristin Davis, public affairs officer for Kern County Superior Court, said by email. "The court is dedicated to improving efficiency and access for everyone."

She and a senior Superior Court official declined to estimate when the court will make more records available online and what, if anything, the service will cost members of the public.

Special Passwords

There remains some question as to how close the court has already come to being able to offer remote access to its records.

While older records may never be fully digitized, officials say, all documents filed with the court since Oct. 1, 2018, have had to be submitted digitally.

Anyone hoping to receive digital copies by email is invited to make such requests through the court's website. Otherwise, members of the public must go to the courthouse to use a free public kiosk or pay to receive a printed copy.

A court employee recently offered to provide The Californian with a password she said would give the newspaper free remote access to all the county's civil records. (The newspaper declined in order to avoid the appearance of favoritism.)

Limited Availability

Many local court records are available online free of charge at the Kern County Superior Court's website, https://www.kern.courts.ca.gov. Minute orders, judges' rulings and other important documents are generally posted and easily accessible there.

But certain key records — civil complaints, for example, the documents at the center of most lawsuits — are not available remotely without a password.

Terry McNally, who retired in 2018 as executive officer of Kern County Superior Court, told The Californian last year that costs associated with digitizing court records are the primary impediment to widening access to digital court records.

Not only does it take time and money to scan in older court documents, he said, but the computer infrastructure required to manage them costs money to build, operate and maintain.

Awaiting Direction

McNally said the court saves money by offering access to its records over the internet. For one thing, it lowers the court's staffing costs, he said.

However, he asserted that it would be up to the state Judicial Council, based in San Francisco, to decide how courts like Kern Superior will recover their digitization costs.

But that kind of guidance probably isn't coming, said the Judicial Council's chief operating officer, Robert Oyung.

The council promotes maximum remote access to public records, he said, but it also recognizes that each local court system faces its own technological challenges.

"It's just a matter of having the courts implement (remote access) when they can," Oyung said. He added that Kern may have some ability to make more records available online, "but there may be some limitations in terms of making it available more broadly."

Making Allowances

He said the council has no plans to tell courts how or when to make fuller access available online.

"Everybody is moving in that direction, but they will be moving at the pace that they can afford to move," he said.

The way members of the public have traditionally been allowed to view court records such as civil case complaints has been to go to the Truxtun Avenue courthouse and request them from a clerk. That person was usually able to retrieve them quickly and make them available for inspection on site at no charge.

That practice has been curtailed in recent years, and on Aug. 14, Kern Superior announced it would begin charging fees outlined in a California statute instituted in 2006. As part of changes that took effect locally on Sept. 1, the court ended its practice of producing physical court records free of charge for government agencies and news media.

New Fees

Anyone wishing to look at a record that was not posted online would have to either ask for a password to read it on a kiosk, or pay 50 cents per page for a copy — plus, pay a $15 file retrieval fee for records that take more than 10 minutes to find, or $20 if the retrieval requires going to an off-site location.

Kern Superior's revenue from charging members of the public file retrieval fees has risen sharply in recent years.

In fiscal 2018-19, the court's revenue from retrieval fees came to $28,481.49. That's almost twice what the court took in from such fees two years earlier.

Comparing Fees

Online access to federal records is available through PACER, or Public Access to Court Electronic Records. It charges account holders 10 cents per page for digital documents.

Los Angeles County Superior Court also offers broad online access to court records. It charges $1 per page for the first five pages, then 40 cents per page after that, up to a maximum of $40 per document.

That court's public information officer, Mary Hearn, noted that no government money has been set aside to cover the cost of providing online access to court records. And similar to Kern Superior's system, she added that anyone may view or buy copies of case records at public terminals located in L.A. courthouses.

'Open Arms'

At the Bakersfield law firm of Chain Cohn Stiles, online access to court records is the same as it is for the general public, meaning it's free but limited, Marketing Director Jorge Barrientos said by email.

"We're fortunate to have this access in Kern County," he wrote. "Los Angeles (County) Superior Court, for example, provides the same services, but charges to access documents."

That said, broader access would definitely be preferable, Barrientos added.

"The few folks I talked to in our office would welcome with open arms having remote access at any time to all these types of documents," he stated.

©2019 The Bakersfield Californian (Bakersfield, Calif.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Platforms & Programs