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Move to electronic court filings to start with small claims cases

Staff report
February 09. 2014 7:08PM

Impulsively suing your neighbor, your furnace repairman or a wayward motorist in the dead of night while you’re still in a lather over real and imagined wrongs will soon be possible in New Hampshire as the state moves toward electronic court filing of small claims cases.

Courts in states across the country are moving toward paperless courthouses, a trend New Hampshire is expected to join by the summer when small claims courts in Concord and Plymouth are scheduled to begin using electronic filing for small claims cases.

The change means the ability to file suit from virtually anywhere with a computer and a debit card, but supporters of the project say they hope it will make the justice system efficient and more accessible.

By the beginning of next year, proponents of the Small Claims Electronic Filing Pilot Project say the remainder of the 32 district courts in the state will also offer electronic filing in the small claims sessions.

Expansion to other court sessions in circuit and superior courts is anticipated in future years.

“Our goal is that eventually we will be a completely electronic system,” said state Supreme Court Justice Robert Lynn, who chairs the high court’s Advisory Committee on Rules. “This small claims pilot project is kind of the first step.”

Doing business electronically has become accepted practice at other formerly paper-laden institutions ranging from public libraries to banks. The country’s court systems, where paper has ruled since the nation’s birth, have been slower to fully embrace the modern electronic world.

But that is changing. The National Association of Court Administrators, which represents the people who handle the business end of litigation, predicts that all courts will be paperless by 2525.

Federal courts already require documents to be filed by computer and the two biggest states, Texas and California, each have several counties where paper is passe.

The New Hampshire movement away from paper will start in the small claims sessions of the Circuit Court District Division, where the cases are often legally the simplest, but vitally important to the people involved.

“We wanted to do two things — begin with case type that is relatively simple, a one-page petition, and we wanted to test it to makes sure that people who are unrepresented will be able to use the electronic system,” Kelly said. “Almost 90 percent of the cases filed in circuit court involve at least one unrepresented litigant.”

The paperless litigation of small claims is expected to begin in July.

Edwin Kelly, resident justice at the Plymouth court said his court and the Concord small claims session were chosen in part to test the system in both a busy city court and in a more rural location.

The Supreme Court will use an expedited rule-making process to allow the pilot project. Generally, changes in court rules require rounds of public comment and recommendation from the rules advisory committee.

“We’ve approved the rules on a temporary basis and will allow them to remain in place for a reasonable time, six months to a year, to see how things are going,” Lynn said. “Then we will see if they need to be tweaked in any way.”

Members of the rules advisory committee will make final recommendations for permanent rules after seeing how the technology provided by an outside vendor works, and how well judges, lawyers, litigants and clerks function.

“One of the biggest problems may be the impact of the culture shift to court staff,” Kelly said. “With no file to look at, judges will take the bench and everything will be on a laptop.”

Electronic filing means the ability to sue without preparing paper documents and taking them to the courthouse or the mailbox, a process that could lead even the most peeved potential combatant to think things over before hauling a perceived enemy off to court, and the potential for increasing case loads.

“I don’t anticipate that will occur,” said Jaye Rancourt, president of the New Hampshire Bar Association. “There is still an expense in a small claims action, and there is still a process at the courthouse.”

The process itself might discourage an increase in frivolous complaints by tempering the impulse with the need to think about the issue.

“They’d still have to write out a complaint; they still would have to bang out the words on the typewriter or computer,” said William Raftery, and analyst for the National Center for State Courts.

Once filed in court, the electronic documents will eventually be made accessible to anyone with a computer.

“That won’t happen on day number one, but as part of the entire project, people will be able to go online to the court website,” Kelly said.

Such unencumbered access to legal papers provides more than just a look at embarrassing details of the lives of one’s neighbors.

“Another factor could be a back of the envelope criminal background check,” Raftery said. “People could use or misuse the online records to run a background check on someone.”

While the judiciary may have lingered on the outskirts of the paperless revolution, many in the tradition-bound profession look forward to the change.

“The general sense is that it will make things more efficient from an attorney’s perspective,” Rancourt of the New Hampshire Bar said. “My colleagues in other states appreciate it, as we do with the federal system.”

For others in the system, the inevitability of the electronic era could mean improvements in the administration of justice.

“It’s the age we live in ... no matter what you want, we’re all doing it online, it’s a natural progression,” Kelly said. “As people involved in the system get used to it, it will just make justice more accessible.”

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