The Vermont Supreme Court will hear a case in 2019. The state supreme court is ultimately responsible for how the Vermont judicial system works, including the electronic filing system that is now the subject of a lawsuit. Photo by Glenn Russell / VTDigger
Attorneys in two Vermont counties want to block the introduction of a new electronic filing system for court files, citing access difficulties.
Attorneys Steven Dunham, Rosanna Chase, and Paul Groce, who work for the Vermont Defender General’s office, are the plaintiffs in the case filed on behalf of their clients.
The lawsuit and urgency motion for restraining order are filed against Patricia Gabel, Vermont’s court administrator, and against state courts in Grand Isle and Franklin counties. These two districts are next up for implementation of the new electronic court filing system known as Odyssey. Several other counties are already online. The court has gradually introduced the nationwide system.
The injunction is only intended to block the introduction in the counties of Grand Isle and Franklin. The next phase of implementation includes counties of Caledonia, Essex, Lamoille, Orleans and Washington.
Plaintiffs say they are not impressed with what they have seen so far.
“When introducing Odyssey, we encountered technical problems that put access to the court at risk. It requires dedicated broadband internet, ”the defenders wrote. Many of their customers do not have the reliable, high-speed internet that is required for adequate access to the system.
“Worse,” they wrote, “now that most lawyers are back to working remotely (usually from home), many are finding they lack the technological infrastructure to access their cases . “
A message to Gabel was returned Thursday with an email from Charity Clark, chief of staff of the Vermont Attorney General TJ Donovan. The Attorney General defends the state’s judicial system.
Clark said the attorney general’s office is reviewing the lawsuit and restraining order and will file a response.
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“I’d like to point out that thousands of Vermonters have successfully used the judiciary’s e-filing system,” wrote Clark. “We are all committed to ensuring access to justice in these difficult times.”
In April, when the system was first introduced to courts in Orange, Windsor and Windham counties, lawyers raised concerns about the difficulty of using it.
One attorney described the new system as “a hot mess”. Others said they lacked the training to navigate in it.
Complaints have also been made about fees for certain users for filing electronic filings, including a $ 5.25 fee for each “envelope” or “a set of documents filed in one case”.
These fees were waived for “exempted” government agencies such as the Vermont Defender General Office and the Attorney General. A user could also request a waiver based on their financial situation.
Individuals who represent themselves still have the option to submit documents, which avoids the fee. The fees charged in civil, probate and family court cases did not extend to criminal matters.
The filing fee payments were originally intended to be sent to Tyler Technologies, a Plano, Texas company that was contracted with the state court system for Odyssey, the electronic system for managing court records. Courts and law enforcement agencies in seven countries and 28 states use the products, according to the company’s website.
The fee consisted of providing 24/7 software support and the infrastructure to run the system.
After concerns were raised about the fees and whether they could even be charged, the legislature stepped in.
Legislature has allocated approximately $ 150,000 federal funding through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act to allow fees to be suspended if the court administrator’s office attempts to renegotiate its contract with Tyler Technologies.
Senator Dick Sears, D-Bennington and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said Thursday the panel heard concerns about the court’s new electronic filing system at its last meeting.
“This was entirely the decision of the court,” said Sears. “There were a lot of problems with it.”
Since the implementation began last year, Sears has heard complaints about malfunctions in the new system.
“Obviously it’s fraught with problems,” he said.
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The move to halt the recent implementation of the new court record system was originally brought before the Franklin County Civil Court, but has since been moved to the Chittenden County Civil Court. A hearing on the urgency motion for the injunction is scheduled for February 4th.
According to the filing, due to the Covid-19 pandemic and the delay in most proceedings, other than those dealing with emergencies, the new system comes at an already difficult time for the courts. Using the new system was not easy, the lawyers said.
“Errors in the registration process – both by practitioners and administrators – can lead to registrations being unfairly refused,” says the registration. “Sometimes it takes up to two weeks for them to be properly brought to court.”
The attorneys said, “If a filing is urgent, the current best practice is for the attorney to make a filing and then continue checking with the court staff to ensure it is dealt with promptly. This adds to the administrative burden for practitioners and court staff. “
Gabel, the court administrator, said the new system saves attorneys postage or travel time to a court and, with the ongoing pandemic, allows filings to be remotely filed or accessed rather than in person.
Vermont Attorney General Matthew Valerio said Thursday that since the litigation is pending, he has little to say about the lawsuit and restraining order.
“What I can say is that there have been issues with Odyssey and the rollout and changes in training and understanding,” he said. “It seems almost everyone is working hard on it.”
Dunham, the counsel for defense attorneys in Counties Franklin and Grand Isle, and Andrew Sullivan, listed as attorney filing the filing, could not be reached immediately for comment Thursday.
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