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Mass. courts still without computers
State pledges update of antiquated system by end of the year
By Ralph Ranalli, Globe Correspondent, 1/10/2000
ntering the file room of the Middlesex Probate and Family Court may be the closest experience in Massachusetts to being transported back in time, to the days of Dickens.
Brown-gray filing shelves crammed with 500,000 divorce, paternity and estate cases rise toward the cathedral ceiling, as file clerks shuffle around, pulling folders and updating handwritten docket books that have changed little since the 1800s.
''Have you walked around in here? Disturbing, isn't it?'' Register Lee Johnson asks a visitor. ''How can we be going into the new millennium and still be using the tools of the 19th century?''
The only computer in Johnson's office: a 1-inch plastic model encased in a water-filled snow globe inscribed ''01-01-00,'' a gift from a friend.
Unlike most supervisors overseeing more than 120 employees, Johnson had no Y2K-related worries because his court is decidedly low-tech.
And Johnson is not alone. While parts of the state court system are computerized to varying degrees, many courts still use paper, pens, and typewriters to keep track of the hundreds of thousands of cases that are filed each year.
That's the way it is done in Norfolk Superior Court in Dedham, where clerks type docket entries onto paper. In Fall River, new computers have been delivered to the Southeast Division Housing Court but they are not hooked up. Clerks there also maintain docket books using typewriters, resulting in a case index - a manual card-file system - that is more than a year behind.
Court officials, are vowing, however, that courts like Middlesex Probate and others will be updated this year.
Within the next several months, court officials are expected to choose a vendor for a new statewide computer system that will tie together case docket and other information in each of the seven divisions: Probate, District, Land Court, Superior, Juvenile, Appeals, and the Supreme Judicial Court.
Still, the contract was awarded three years after the Legislature approved a $75 million bond issue to computerize the courts. About $23 million has been spent so far, officials said, to hire a consulting firm and upgrade the infrastructure by installing high-speed telephone and data lines in old courthouses.
Many court consumers wonder why progress has been so slow.
''Right now, if I was an Australian lawyer, I could log on to my computer, find out my caseload and the docket of the day,'' said Boston attorney Jeffrey Aresty, who is participating in an American Bar Association project on computerization. ''There is no excuse for court systems in the US not to be at that level.''
Aresty said courts in most states have been much slower to adopt new technology than businesses and other government agencies. Courts in other parts of the world are also more technologically advanced than those in the United States, he said.
''Is the progress slow? I think you hear that in some quarters,'' said state Appeals Court Judge Andre A. Gelinas, who headed a committee on updating court technology. ''I think the word would be deliberate. We wanted to take advantage of the computer in its best form. When we were looking at other states, we literally heard horror stories about them spending $40 [million] to $50 million on systems that didn't work.''
The work has also been complicated by the age of some courthouses, Gelinas said. ''It's been a very difficult situation,'' he said. ''There is a large range of buildings and some of them have granite walls two feet thick.''
Anthony Nesi, a circuit judge in the probate and family court and project director for the state court's information technology program, said the courts weren't computerized earlier because the court system was a collection of small, largely self-reliant divisions until a reorganization in the early 1990s created a post of Chief Justice for Administration.
''Historically, I don't think you had the centralized resources to bring the firepower to do this properly,'' Nesi said. ''You had little local courts supported by small administrative offices that didn't have the capacity.''
On a recommendation from Deloitte Consulting, the courts will use existing court computer networks to temporarily tie together courts within divisions. Those networks will be replaced with one integrated system, Nesi said.
To start, all of the state's Superior Courts, for example, will be tied into the case management system currently used in Suffolk, Middlesex, and Worcester Superior courts.
The probate and family courts, meanwhile, will be tied into the new Basic Court Operations Tools system, which was developed by Deloitte.
Within the next few months, court administrators will decide whether to buy a ready-made system to tie together all courts or order a custom-made one based on Deloitte's BasCOT, Nesi said.
He said he is confident that the project will be finished within three years and within budget.
The extent of computerization, though, is still up in the air.
Initially, lawyers and court personnel will use the system mostly for scheduling and docketing - listing documents filed in cases and upcoming hearings. Existing computer data bases that track domestic violence restraining orders and arrest warrants will also be tied in, Nesi said.
Until now, the hassle of going to a courthouse and manually searching files has itself been a privacy safeguard, keeping often delicate information about litigants from prying eyes, Gelinas said. But cyber courts could dramatically change that.
Gelinas points to a recently computerized county court in another state where a dating service obtained electronic records about divorced women and marketed the information to male clients seeking eligible women, he said.
It is also unclear when and if the system will eventually allow for electronic filing of cases and documents, which some lawyers say raises the risk of forgery and fraud.
For now, court employees like divorce case manager Maxine Rocaberte in Middlesex Probate say they will be happy to be freed from paper docketing.
As many as 3,000 divorce cases await manual docketing in Middlesex, a two-year backlog.
Rocaberte first worked at the court from 1947 to 1957, when she left to raise a family. She returned more than two decades later, in 1979, but not much had changed.
''When I first came in, we still had inkwells,'' she said. ''Then we went to stick pens.''
-- Homer Beanfang (Bats@inbellfry.com), January 10, 2000
Just thought it was interesting.
-- Homer Beanfang (Bats@inbellfry.com), January 10, 2000.