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Editorial: E-filing should make Cook County courts more accessible. It doesn't

Wednesday, August 22, 2018
Chicago Tribune
by Editorial Board

Editorial: 

E-filing should make Cook County courts more accessible. It doesn't.

Editorials reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board, as determined by the members of the board, the editorial page editor and the publisher.

You’d think one advantage of being among the last court systems on the planet to switch to electronic filing would be that the bugs have been worked out.

Not so.

Advil sales spiked in Cook County on July 2, the day after the nation’s second-largest unified court system joined a statewide case management system. Seven weeks later, the word we’re still hearing from judges, attorneys and paralegals is chaos.

The long-promised e-filing platform is supposed to make the courts more efficient and accessible, but the system is confusing, unreliable and error-ridden, the Tribune’s Elyssa Cherney reported.

Lawyers complain — loudly — that processing their documents digitally somehow takes longer than when the circuit court clerk’s office did almost everything by hand.

Judges tell us they’re hearing a fraction of the cases they’d normally handle because it takes too long for filings to get on their dockets. Scanning of items once handled by staffers in individual courtrooms must now be done by the much slower employees in the clerk’s office. Sometimes the paperwork from one court date hasn’t made its way into the system by the time the next court date rolls around. Sometimes it’s rejected without explanation.

But never mind about the people who are being paid to suffer these headaches. What about the citizens for whom a brush with the court system is a rare and intimidating experience?

It’s especially problematic for pro se litigants — people filing without an attorney, most often because they can’t afford one. Many of them don’t have regular access to computers and can find e-filing daunting — especially when they encounter instructions in Latin or legalese.

Pro se filers are common in domestic relations cases, in which the parties are seeking a divorce, for example, or trying to enforce an order for child support. Because they aren’t used to navigating the court system, they don’t know what to do when their motion gets stuck in e-filing hell. It’s an undeserved reprieve for deadbeats and a travesty for their hungry kids.

Some judges have adopted informal workarounds, allowing parties to bypass the e-filing system to move their cases along. But that option isn’t likely to occur to someone without an attorney.

Those who are paying an attorney could find they’re being billed for extra hours while this mess gets sorted out.

Tell us again how this is supposed to save time and money?

We’ve been harping for years about Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown promising to modernize Cook County’s filing system while simultaneously dragging her feet.

Decades after the federal courts entered the digital age, Cook County remained a throwback, a world of manila folders and carbon paper, of documents delivered and copied and tracked manually. We’re not at all surprised that Brown’s army of payrollers wasn’t ready when the system went live, despite the many, many delays.

We’d still be waiting if the Illinois Supreme Court hadn’t insisted on the July 1 start date, six months after the original deadline. We appeal to the Supreme Court, again, to install an independent monitor to oversee this flailing transition. We’re not at all confident in Brown’s ability to pull this act together.



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