BY ART BUKOWSKI
TRAVERSE CITY — Millions of pieces of paper are stuffed in thousands of files within the 13th Circuit Court's three courthouses.
State law requires court workers to maintain those files for several years, and court clerks have to wander into rooms with shelves stacked to the ceiling to retrieve files for attorneys or local citizens.
Countless tons of paper are consumed, and the filing system takes up space, costs money and isn't designed for easy public access.
All of those issues, in the 13th Circuit Court, at least, eventually will be a thing of the past. The court is more than halfway through a multi-year project designed to implement a paperless filing system.
When completed, almost all documents in the circuit — which covers Leelanau, Grand Traverse and Antrim counties — will be filed electronically.
"Ultimately, it's about making the components of the justice system more accessible to lawyers, litigants and the general public," said Circuit Judge Philip E. Rodgers.
Installation of the paperless system began about a year ago, and Rodgers expects it to be fully implemented by the summer. The court will still maintain existing paper files for as long as the law requires, and a limited number of documents will continue to be filed in hard-copy form for various reasons.
People who represent themselves will still be allowed to file paper documents, for instance, as they might not be technologically inclined.
The electronic system has loads of benefits, court officials said. The court will send notices and other communications to attorneys by email, saving thousands of dollars in paper, ink and postage fees. The files will be indexed, making them easier to search. Each file will be digital, so more than one person can look at a file at the same time.
And transferring documents electronically is near instantaneous, so documents can be sent with ease and in short order from distances near or far.
A public access terminal in the Grand Traverse County courthouse allows visitors to view electronically-filed documents, and Rodgers said the goal is to eventually make the documents available over the Internet, as Federal court records are. Rodgers wants to get the system fully implemented and iron out the kinks before that happens.
Acme attorney Wilson Brott said the fees that come with the system aren't appealing — $8 for each group of electronically filed documents, a charge stacked on top of already existing filing fees — but the ease of electronic filing is a big benefit.
"All in all, I think it's more positive than negative," he said.
The electronic files are backed up by the county and the software provider, Rodgers said.