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Tom Smart, Deseret News
Utah Supreme Court Chief Justice Christine Durham gives the State of the Judiciary address in Senate chambers.

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah's state courts are making an ambitious transition to an "e-everything" system to eliminate the time-consuming and expensive use of paper.

"We are moving to the use of an electronic record for all court business at all court levels everywhere in the state — something that has yet to be done in any state court system," said Utah Supreme Court Chief Justice Christine Durham.

Durham told legislators in her state of the judiciary address Monday that budget cuts and personnel losses the past few years have accelerated the shift to a paperless system.

State courts currently handle tens of millions of pieces of paper annually, and the number of cases continues to increase as the courts' budget has diminished the past two years. The non-judicial workforce has been downsized by 9 percent, while case filings have gone up 16 percent for the three straight years, she said.

More than 950,000 new cases — about 4,500 daily — are filed each year in Utah courts.

"Everyone is concerned these days about having to do more with less; in the courts we are worried about doing far more with much less," Durham said.

State courts have already launched electronic filing of civil cases, documents, warrants and citations and payment of fees and fines. Documents filed on paper are scanned to create an electronic record. E-filing of criminal cases will follow, though Durham did not offer a time frame for that.

"For the court user and the average citizen, electronic access means no more trips to the courthouse to conduct business that doesn't require a hearing," the chief justice said.

Durham said the complete transition will take several years but the components are in place.

"The status of these major changes, however, is dependent on our ability to continue to design, test and implement sweeping solutions to complicated problems and is therefore somewhat fragile," she said. "Our budget structure in the judicial branch leaves us with limited options."

The change to a paperless system is part of what Durham called a major restructuring of the courts' "business model." Budget cuts, she said, are driving fundamental reform in almost every aspect of the system.

"We are changing how cases are filed, how clerks process them, how judges view them, how we communicate about them, and how they are litigated, heard and resolved," Durham said.

Another area undergoing significant reform is civil litigation, particularly the process of discovery in civil lawsuits, she said. Discovery is the means by which opposing parties obtain information and evidence from each other to settle or try their cases. The process, Durham said, is the major cause of expense and delay in civil courts.

"Our existing discovery rules are based on federal rules, which were conceived at a time when copy machines didn't even exist, let alone computers," she said.

Durham said new rules will streamline the process and reduce delays and costs, thereby improving access to and confidence in the courts.

"Courts are not perfect," she said. "But in our constitutional democracy, Americans have placed in them our best hopes for preserving a system of justice and rule of law."

e-mail: romboy@desnews.com