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Published: 1/21/2001

Court weighs electronic justice

BY JIM PROVANCE
BLADE COLUMBUS BUREAU

COLUMBUS - It might not be long before you can pay a traffic fine, file a will, or sign final divorce papers without ever putting pen to paper or setting foot in a courthouse or city hall.

The Ohio Supreme Court is seeking public input on proposed rules that would allow courts for the first time to accept filings electronically. The court expects that most major metropolitan areas of the state will be on line within the next five years, but it could be 20 years before all counties are dealing with digital signatures submitted by e-mail rather than pen and paper.

“Our main concern was to maintain local autonomy,” said Christian Selch, manager of the high court's Technology Policy and Planning Committee. “Local court officials know best how to provide services to their communities. But it was important to come up with some minimum level of consistency from one court to the next for those who do business in more than one court.”

The court has established a pilot program in Hamilton, Licking, and Pickaway counties, all in central and southern Ohio. The Supreme Court has waived existing rules requiring ink signatures and personal appearances so that the county courts may accept digital filings in civil, traffic, and some minor criminal cases.

But it was Lucas County that started the wheels turning. Court Administrator Jean Atkin said the county asked about the possibility of electronic signatures when it began converting to a new computer system. It was thinking about making it easier to get judges' signatures on documents within the system rather than making it easier for outside documents to get in.

Lucas wasn't ready to proceed, so it wasn't included among the pilot counties. But Ms. Atkin has served on the court's Technology Advisory Committee.

Even with the most modern equipment and technology, Ms. Atkin said she doesn't believe electronic filing will completely eliminate the need for personal appearances.

“This is still very much a people-oriented process,” she said. “There will still be a need to come to a courthouse, particularly for jury trials and when you have things where you have to be up close and personal. The days of the Jetsons may be upon us where everybody talks electronically, but I hope not.”

The three pilot counties found their own sources of funding. Mr. Selch said there are no plans for the state to underwrite the costs of electronic filing, which may require the purchase of equipment and computer software.

Those interested in commenting on the lengthy proposed rules may view them on the court's web site at www.sconet.state.oh.us. Comments can be made no later than March 7 via e-mail to tpp@sconet.state.oh.us or by writing Mr. Selch at Technology Policy and Planning, Supreme Court of Ohio, 30. E. Broad St., Columbus, OH 43266.

The new rules would take effect July 1.



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