New court filing system being rolled out

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BRATTLEBORO — With citations being issued in lieu of court arraignments and all "non-emergency" court hearings being postponed, court administrators around Vermont are preparing for the day that the order of judicial emergency in response to COVID-19 is lifted.

"We are already in planning stages to determine how we will roll back into what will probable be a very new normal," said Terry Scott, chief of trial operations in Vermont state courts, during a teleconference with the Reformer.

"For everyone, how we do business has changed," said Anne Damone, the supervisor of courts in Windham, Windsor and Orange counties, during the teleconference. "The courts are not immune to that."

Judge Katherine Hayes, the presiding judge in Windham County, said most hearings are now being conducted by video and teleconferencing.

"Often it's just the judge and the court reporter in the courtroom," said Hayes.

It's very rare that a defendant has been seen in court since March 10 when Administrative Order 49 postponed all court hearings except for emergencies. On March 25, the state issued an update to the order, restricting public access to the courts to participants in specific hearings and to the media.

Hayes said the courts plan to conduct mental health hearings via videoconference. This is especially important for Windham County, which has more mental health hearings than any other court in the state because Brattleboro is home to the Retreat.

Being able to conduct hearings via video and telephone has also cut down on exposure for the county sheriffs, who are tasked with transporting defendants to courthouses.

The courts in Windham, Windsor and Orange counties will begin taking electronic filings, utilizing Odyssey, its new case management system, starting on April 20. Until then, the courts are accepting emailed filings to reduce court traffic. Individuals seeking to file documents with the court in person may file them in the receptacles provided at the entryway to each courthouse, states the administrative order. "Individuals will not be permitted to enter the courthouse to file documents, and filings will not be accepted at the counter."

The Judicial Branch has been working on the new case management system since 2014. The system went live on March 2 at the public portal, but it's only for civil infractions.

Case files for criminal infractions are not available online because Vermont statutes don't permit it. However, a public kiosk in the courts gives access to those documents, which can be printed for 25 cents per page. In the past, an interested party had to ask for the file from the court clerks.

For the past several months, court staffers have been scanning into the system documents for cases with active motions.

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"The pandemic has hampered the scanning effort," said Hayes, especially with court clerks only working half time and during different shifts.

"Across the state, we have a skeleton staff in our courts," said Scott. "We are doing as much social distancing as possible. We have staff members working certain shifts who have very limited contact with each other."

"But the consistent message I am getting from staff is they are glad to have the new system," said Damone. "It's made it easier dealing with everything that is going on."

Operations in Newfane, where civil cases are normally heard, have been suspended for the time being.

"All of the historical files are not being scanned," said Jeffery Loewer, chief information officer for the Vermont Judiciary. For those files, an index of actions is being uploaded to the system. Interested parties will still need to ask a court clerk for the actual file to look at those historical documents.

Documents filed before 1945 are kept in the state archives in Middlesex, said Scott.

Attorneys in Windsor, Windham and Orange counties are now receiving e-notifications of all filings in their cases. While the public still has to go to the courthouse to see the documents, attorneys, defendants and other affected parties will be able to access case-specific documents online.

"If nothing else, this crisis has proved how important the new system is," said Loewer, who commended the clerks in Windham, Windsor and Orange counties for all their hard work implementing the system.

"Our staff has been really enthusiastic and committed, working incredibly hard to make this work," added Hayes.

Odyssey was created by Tyler Technologies, a Plano, Texas, company that has been developing management solutions for local governments since 1966.

Rollout of the new system is expected in courts in Bennington, Rutland, Addison, and Chittenden counites in September, with implementation in courts in Washington, Franklin, Lamoille, Essex, Caledonia, Grand Isle, and Orleans counties slated for February 2021.

Bob Audette can be contacted at raudette@reformer.com.


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