When technology pervades many if not most aspects of work, social, and personal activities, users come to expect fast, convenient, on-demand access to all resources and immediate or near-time replies or responses to inquiries, questions, and problems.
Unfortunately, these expectations are deflated when technology users become court users and demand access to court records and documents. Policies and practices to access court records are not consistent with federal and state courts; and even in court systems in many states access can be limited to the courthouses.
Court files have historically been open to public examination at courthouses where case pleadings, documents, and appeals are originally filed. This open access to records allows the public to monitor and observe the judiciary and investigate the status of cases and parties. Restricting record access to courthouses makes records practically obscure to the general public, although the obscurity affords individuals a level of privacy when access is limited to on-site review of paper records.
Technology has made available, even mandatory in some courts, the electronic filing (e-filing) of court pleadings and documents. Case records filed in electronic form permit faster, easier, and wider access to the records beyond courthouses via the Internet. As courts adopt e-filing, the focal point of court business processes changes from case files and documents to data processing. This change shifts the emphasis from a court’s case management system (CMS) to data extraction software, which includes redaction software.
The availability of electronic records raises concerns about personal privacy while maintaining public access. Court administrative staff review new cases and pleadings that often require manual data entry and redaction before they are filed and made available to the public. But new technology can now automatically extract data from electronic files, redact data to protect private information, and automate court administrative review of filings to facilitate court business processes.
- the accurate identification of structured (e.g., case numbers) and unstructured (e.g., victim names) expressions in structured (forms) and unstructured (e.g., scanned pleadings) documents;
- easy specification and configuration of redaction targets and in-line redaction features;
- machine learning with the ability to train a system to identify data using test documents or data sets automatically; and
- Intelligent Character Recognition (ICR), which goes beyond Optical Character Resolution (OCR), to recognize handwritten court case records.
The NCSC “Best Practices” report identified numerous court business goals that could be achieved using such automatic data extraction and redaction software. The goals include:
- reducing processing times for court filings and dispositions;
- reducing the number of court staff needed to process court filings, manage cases, and fulfill record requests;
- increasing granular access to court case data;
- providing appropriately redacted court case records; and
- reducing the risks of exposing confidential court case records.
According to the report, many state policies restrict access to a broad range of case and document types because of the difficulty and expense of redacting information that should remain confidential. Some courts redact private information using administrative staff. However, that’s an expensive proposition. A few courts use automated redaction to replace staff review partially, but the software is expensive (transaction-based fee models and volume-based pricing are common), and products still require some manual review effort because courts, like lawyers, are risk-averse and will review documents regardless of the redaction accuracy rate. Hence, most courts put the onus on filers to redact private information. But the NCSC states that compliance with court redaction rules is lacking and, with the increase in self-represented litigants, full compliance may not be a realistic goal.
The NCSC report also advocates that court public access and privacy policies should consider new technology, such as auto-redaction software that uses machine learning. The report observed that court users expect accuracy, efficiency, and speed from the courts in making records and documents available — especially where automated software extraction and redaction software are key.
The NCSC rallied the best practice for access to court records around redaction software, proposing that access policies and redaction capabilities should be considered together — like bread and butter, not apples and oranges. Note, however, that the Consortium of State Court Administrators (COSCA) has not endorsed the NCSC report as an official white paper. COSCA recommends a model policy for public access to court records in “Developing CCJ/COSCA Guidelines for Public Access to Court Records: A National Project to Assist State Courts” (the CCJ/COSCA Guidelines).
Early adopters of Generation 4 redaction technology should evaluate the systems’ capabilities, scrutinize public application programming interfaces (APIs), and verify integrations with e-filing service providers, electronic filing software, CMS, and court document and content management software. Courts will not want to use new redaction software as stand-alone, off-the-shelf software but rather will want one that integrates into workflows to automate business processes.
Late adopters may not have to do anything. Redaction technology providers are collaborating with CMS providers, and the latest redaction capabilities may soon be available in the CMS near you. For example, Tyler Technologies selected CSI’s Intellidact software for redaction, and TeraDact’s TeraDactor redaction software is integrated with the Alfresco One Enterprise Content Management platform and is available for deployment in Microsoft Azure.