Chancery Judges in Forrest, Lamar, Marion, Pearl River and Perry counties will be able to speed up the way cases are handled with a computer network that links all five counties, says Chancery Court Administrator Janet Polk.
Senior Chancery Judge Sebe Dale of Columbia said, "You can see what's coming that's going to require more time and the ones coming that are simple. It affords the judge the opportunity to manage his docket."
Polk said, "In Chancery Court, these are people's lives. They need to be able to go on with their lives without matters hanging over their heads. Anything we can do to expedite their matters will benefit them."
Polk said computerization is a tool to improve docket management.
"We used to be able to dispose of our cases within 90 to 120 days. That's not the case now because of the number of cases we have. We do try to dispose of all of our cases within less than a year," Polk said.
"With increasing caseloads, it is going to be absolutely mandatory that we get a grip on our cases as they are filed. That is the only way we are going to be able to manage the magnitude of what is coming at us," Polk said.
In 1990, the 10th Chancery District saw 3,986 cases filed, according to statistics compiled by the Administrative Office of Courts. Case filings for the year 2000 totaled 6,475.
The computer system "will enable us from the administrative standpoint and docket management to know what types of cases are filed on a daily basis," Polk said. "If there are allegations of some type of abuse of minors, we can intervene immediately. If we have a case of some magnitude that involves, say, an annexation that requires some type of early intervention and a lot of management conferences and discovery...we can be pro-active in taking control of that case and in making it run more smoothly and not have surprises," Polk said.
Before getting the network, Polk tracked cases by creating her own computer database.
With completion of the network, judges will be able to gain access to docket information in any of the five counties using a laptop computer. In Pearl River County and Lamar County, that access will be available right on the bench, Polk said.
Perry County Chancery Court previously managed all its records in a paper system. This will be its first use of computers, Polk said. The other four counties use computers in some phase of their Chancery Court operations, but still also rely on paper records.
Polk and Dale said their goal is to eventually have a paperless electronic filing system.
Dale said, "Courts are going to have to go to that because counties can't afford to continue building additional storage space for records."
Dale estimated the cost of the entire project at between $150,000 and $160,000. Cost is shared by the five counties.
Polk said all the software will be installed by next week. Court administrators and court clerks are working to type file information into the computers.
"It will be up to the individual clerks' offices as to how quickly they get the data into the program," Polk said. "We'll go to the different courts and do it after hours if needed."
In Lamar County, Chancery Clerk Wayne Smith has hired two high school students to do data entry. New case filings are being placed into the computer system. Soon they will also begin loading old case file information into the computer system. Smith said no decision has been made about how many years of records will be placed on computer.
Smith said his office has used computerized records since the early 1990s, but the old system had become outdated and troublesome. The company that installed it no longer was able to provide technical support, and some data was lost from the old computer.
The computer upgrade for his office "was a necessity," Smith said.
The public will have access to court records at a computer terminal in each clerk's office, Polk said.
Marion County Chancery Clerk Cass Barnes already had a public access computer terminal in his office. His land records index has been computerized since 1997, and limited docket information of cases in Chancery Court is available on computer. The new program will enhance what is available on computer, increase staff efficiency and save space, he said.
"We are going to have a public monitor from which the attorney or anyone else can view the court records instead of having to look up the filings in the docket books. That is going to be very helpful and save a lot of time on searches," Barnes said. "Everybody that is dealing in our court system can come in and review it....It will be a lot less work. It will be work taken off my employees."
Barnes said the new computer program will give the other four counties of the district land records indexing and other capabilities.
In Marion County, Barnes expects to put some documents on computer by the first of next year. This will be done by producing an electronic image of paper records. The imaging process has not started.
"The advantage of imaging is space. Everybody is in the same situation. They are running out of space....You can buy computer programs cheaper than you can buy buildings to store records," Barnes said.
The Marion County Chancery Clerk's office will keep the paper files too, Barnes said.
Barnes said he hopes to eventually be able to make some of the information available via the Internet, although the program is not at that point yet.
"I think it will enhance the knowledge of the Chancery Court and it will allow people to view it on their computers rather than having to make a trip to the courthouse. I think it will save time and money," Barnes said.
For more information, contact Beverly Pettigrew Kraft, court public information officer, at 601-354-7452 or at email@example.com.