Is it appropriate to charge for online access? Many states make judicial opinions at the appellate levels freely available online but do not offer online access to trial court proceedings, which generally contain more detailed and sensitive evidence. This is attributable partly to our federal system, under which state and local governments are the laboratories of democracy. The model policy project sought public comments on a February draft policy between mid-February and the end of April Several organizations that work in and fund initiatives in the nation's state courts developed a project entitled Developing a Model Written Policy Governing Access to Court Records.
Another set of issues concern cost: The project does not aim to provide standard implementation and operating guidelines for state and local courts. The issue of privacy provides a particularly difficult challenge since many jurisdictions made decisions about what should be public long before the Internet and without anticipating the kind of widespread availability it represents. Several organizations that work in and fund initiatives in the nation's state courts developed a project entitled Developing a Model Written Policy Governing Access to Court Records. Composed of state and federal law enforcement officials, academics, privacy advocates and other experts, the task force studied laws and policies regarding criminal records information and produced a report in August Guidelines for Policy Development by State Courts seeks to outline the issues that local jurisdiction must address in developing their own rules, and provide sample language developed by the project committee or by other jurisdictions. Many states make judicial opinions at the appellate levels freely available online but do not offer online access to trial court proceedings, which generally contain more detailed and sensitive evidence. State Courts Move Toward Online Records CDT recently conducted a nationwide survey of the practices of state and local courts in making information public via the Internet. However, the courts are finding themselves faced with some unexpected consequences of such an open access system as they become increasingly reliant upon the Internet. Courts have made records available in many forms ranging from statewide services to many instances of single jurisdictions providing access to their records. Detailed information about the project process, early drafts of the guidelines, all comments received during the public comment period, and related documents are available on the project Web site. A final version of the Guidelines, incorporating edits and changes made during the July conference, will be available as part of a project final report to be released in October on the project Web site http: Should a distinction be drawn between civil cases and criminal cases? And while some states offer free comprehensive access to their court records, many others charge users a range of fees for online access. Does a subscription or fee-based system appropriately limit dissemination to professionals such as lawyers or does it exclude ordinary citizens? With caseloads growing each year, the Internet has become a valuable tool for court officials in terms of managing cases in an efficient and timely manner and streamlining document processing. Efforts to Develop Guidelines While it appears that some states are not addressing these issues systematically, many others are forming committees and proposing initiatives to establish statewide rules and policies regarding electronic access to court records in order to make the information the state provides uniform, consistent, and user friendly. The task force's report outlined 14 recommendations including: A Quiet Revolution in the Courts: On the one hand, this movement to post court information online represents a quiet revolution in citizen access and government accountability, part of the growing reality of e-government. One involves the balance between privacy and accountability. What information should be available online? Is it appropriate to charge for online access? We found a wide variety of practices and policies. However, it seems there has been little follow-up and there is no indication of whether its recommendations are being followed by the states.
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