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Rollout of North Carolina's new digital court filing system still hitting snags

Lee County Courthouse, on Tuesday, May 9, 2023. Lee is one of four counties, along with Harnett, Johnston, and Wake, piloting a new cloud-based court filing system.
Rusty Jacobs
/
WUNC
Lee County Courthouse, on Tuesday, May 9, 2023. Lee is one of four counties, along with Harnett, Johnston and Wake, piloting a new cloud-based court filing system.

Attorney Chas Post said things have hardly improved since the launch of eCourts back on Feb. 13, especially in criminal district court.

Post practices law throughout central North Carolina, including Lee County, where he handles traffic offenses, DWIs, and all variety of criminal matters.

... the workload for not only the District Attorney's office but the clerk's office has doubled.
Attorney Chas Post

Lee is one of four counties, along with Harnett, Johnston and Wake, to go live with the state's new digital, cloud-based system. The $100 million project is meant to overhaul a dated system. But the project continues to frustrate attorneys in the pilot counties.

"There's many more steps than there used to be," Post said in an interview in his law office just across the street from the Lee County Courthouse. "There's just as much paper if not more paper in the courtroom than there used be, and the workload for not only the District Attorney's office but the clerk's office has doubled."

New system 'does not work well for criminal district court,' local attorney says

ECourts comprises four integrated components, each developed by the Texas company Tyler Technologies. The components include eWarrants, a repository for electronically uploaded arrest warrants, and Odyssey, a civil and criminal case management system meant to replace a 1980s-era mainframe and paper-based system used by the state's clerks of court.

"It probably works well for civil superior court," Post said, "but it does not work well for criminal district court, family court, domestic violence 50B court, and it's not really that great in criminal superior court either."

Since the rollout, Odyssey has significantly slowed things down in high-volume courtrooms where attorneys handling multiple cases and members of the public representing themselves come to quickly resolve traffic tickets, low-level misdemeanors or to get cases continued. Post and other attorneys in the four pilot counties have been complaining to the North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) about that slowdown.

"It's not that trivial when you're missing double the amount of work," Post said, referring to the impact of the sluggish pace on people who come to court to handle matters themselves or must wait until their case can be heard.

Attorney Chas Post, on May 9, 2023, outside the Lee County Courthouse. He practices criminal law in Lee and other parts of central North Carolina.
Rusty Jacobs
/
WUNC
Attorney Chas Post, on May 9, 2023, outside the Lee County Courthouse. He practices criminal law in Lee and other parts of central North Carolina.

"You know, your boss is like, 'Alright, you can take half a day' when you end up having to spend the whole day, or you've got to pick up your child from school and you can't do it because you're stuck in court and you can't leave," Post added.

AOC officials allayed state representative's concerns

Post and other attorneys from the pilot counties met with legislators and AOC officials a couple of months ago to air some of their grievances and concerns about eCourts and Odyssey.

Rep. Robert Reives (D-Chatham), himself a lawyer, had written a letter to House Speaker Tim Moore (R-Cleveland) seeking a legislative inquiry into the problems with the eCourts rollout and the selection of Tyler Technologies. That company has, according to news reports, faced legal troubles over its courtroom software in other states.

Switching over from a paper-based system to a whole digital system is a giant transformative shift.
AOC Director Ryan Boyce

But after the meeting with AOC officials — including the agency's director Ryan Boyce — Reives, the House Minority Leader, told Speaker Moore that he no longer thought a hearing on eCourts was needed at this time, according to Reives's spokesman.

Boyce said in an interview with WUNC that things continue to improve with the rollout but hiccups are to be expected with such a monumental project.

"Switching over from a paper-based system to a whole digital system is a giant transformative shift," Boyce said.

Odyssey's launch in Mecklenburg on hold indefinitely

Boyce took over at AOC in April, a couple of months after eCourts went live in the four pilot counties. AOC had planned on launching in Mecklenburg on May 8 but that got put off indefinitely after AOC updated county officials on where things stood in terms of working out software defects and other issues.

"They agreed that, you know, they were not ready to go live until the system was in a more mature state," Boyce explained.

According to Boyce, software defects like something called "script errors" have contributed to the slower pace in district court.

"When you're working on a computer and a little dialog box pops up with a bunch of gibberish that you have to click to go away," he explained. "There's been a number of those, we've been able to work through a good number."

In a letter sent to Rep. Reives on April 21, Boyce said that since Odyssey's launch in February, AOC had logged and reported 573 "application defects" and that Tyler Technologies had resolved 393 of them.

Boyce said problems persist with the amount of time it takes for screens to move between changing documents and functions but that is something that can improve as judicial officials and clerks' offices tighten up what Boyce called "business processes."

He said AOC has been working with judicial officials on clearing up logjams created by the crush of various court matters being handled on a daily basis.

Boyce suggested that some of the courtroom delays could be resolved if clerks' offices establish practices that separate the handling of simple tasks, like continuing cases, from working on more complex matters like filling out a domestic violence protective order.

Attorney blames client's arrest on new filing system

Meanwhile, attorney Chas Post expressed concerns about the potential for more serious constitutional violations.

A couple of months ago, Post said he had a client who had been facing charges in two separate cases: one a serious offense involving a shooting, the other a lower-level felonious drug possession case. With little evidence to go on, the prosecutor dropped the more serious case and Post's client pled to the drug possession for a probationary sentence, then went home, only to get arrested that night when heading out to the store.

So he spent the night in jail being arrested for something that was closed and we blame that squarely on Odyssey and eCourts.
Attorney Chas Post

"For missing court, which he didn't, on the cases that had been dismissed and the cases that he pled to that same morning," Post said.

"So he spent the night in jail being arrested for something that was closed and we blame that squarely on Odyssey and eCourts," Post said, explaining that it was too late at night to call the judge or the assistant D.A. to get his client out of custody before the next morning.

But in his interview with WUNC and his letter to Rep. Reives, AOC Director Boyce maintained his agency has not seen any evidence where Odyssey has led to a person's delayed release or unlawful detention.

Public users conducting 10,000 searches daily using the new system, AOC said

Boyce said software issues notwithstanding, the benefits of eCourts far outweigh the problems, especially when it comes to public access to court files.

One of the system's components is called Guide and File, which allows attorneys to avoid lines at the clerk's office by submitting motions and other court documents online. It also lets members of the public deal with traffic tickets or file small claims actions electronically.

"What I tell people is it's a lot like Turbo Tax when you're doing your taxes, it asks you kind of the relevant questions and based on your responses leads you to the right information, then allows to file that all online," Boyce explained. "And that's something that never existed before February 13th here in North Carolina."

Boyce also noted what he sees as the environmental benefits of eCourts saying that, according to AOC data, handling new court cases digitally has saved an estimated 465,000 pieces of paper. And, Boyce said, public users of the Odyssey portal conduct approximately 10,000 court system searches daily.

That rosy picture stands in stark contrast to the grim account of the Odyssey rollout given by some court practitioners in the four pilot counties.

Nonetheless, Boyce said he hopes Mecklenburg County will launch Odyssey later this summer and that eCourts is still on track to be up and running in all 100 counties by the end of 2025.

Rusty Jacobs is WUNC's Voting and Election Integrity Reporter.
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