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Court’s remote-access system adding circuits

A lawyer needing a last-minute look at a document in the court file used to have to rush over to the courthouse and hurriedly review the papers before a hearing.

Now, thanks to a program started by the Supreme Court of Virginia last year, he can call it up on the computer in his office, saving time and headaches.

The court’s program called “OCRA,” for “Officer of the Court Remote Access,” is now available in 12 jurisdictions, with three more coming online shortly.

According to Katya N. Herndon, a spokesperson for the Supreme Court of Virginia, the circuit courts with OCRA are:

  • Norfolk
  • Richmond
  • Chesapeake
  • Caroline County
  • Northampton County
  • Prince William County
  • Roanoke County
  • Rockingham County/Harrisonburg
  • Smyth County
  • Fauquier County
  • Dinwiddie County
  • James City County/Williamsburg

Herndon said that circuit courts in Hanover, Bedford and Washington counties will be getting the OCRA system soon.
From all accounts, lawyers, clerks and law enforcement officials are finding OCRA to their taste.

The program has been in operation for nearly a year in Richmond. Circuit Court Clerk Bevill M. Dean has 212 subscribers, split between paid subscriptions and free access for law enforcement agencies. Dean said the service is popular with criminal defense attorneys.

The Richmond court charges $100 a year for the first subscription at a private law office, and $50 for each additional subscriber in the office.

Dean said lawyers have stopped him on the street to compliment the system. “I’m getting nothing but positive feedback,” he said.

Because electronic access to court files means fewer phone calls to the clerk’s office, it’s a “win-win,” Dean said. “I believe attorneys truly are loving it.”

That appears to be the case at the Richmond commonwealth’s attorney’s office. “It’s working great for us,” said Tracy

Thorne-Begland, chief deputy commonwealth’s attorney.

Prosecutors commonly would have to go to the clerk’s office or a judge’s chamber to check on last minute filings before a hearing. Now, they can just pull up the case on their screens, Thorne-Begland said.

The Richmond system offers access to records from January 2011. Since that time, his office has been “file-less,” Dean said. He said his staff scans paper documents as they are filed, then stores the documents in boxes labeled by date.

The court “file” for each case is the electronic version stored in the computer system.

Once a document is scanned in, “hopefully, we will never have to touch it again,” Dean said.

Richmond criminal defense lawyer William T. Linka said while he finds the system useful, he still checks the files for his clients’ cases for documents he might have missed on the electronic system. “Sometimes, there are subpoenas in there” he had not seen online, he said.

The Rockingham County Circuit Court offered OCRA in July, and clerk Chaz W. Evans-Haywood says he has 99 subscribers. As with other courts, law enforcement agencies get free access, but private attorneys have to pay. Evans-Haywood charges $25 a month or $300 a year.

Evans-Haywood said it saves “a ton of time” for his staffers, who no longer have to pull files and copy documents for lawyers. “Using technology like this is exactly what we should be concentrating on,” he said.

The circuit court in Prince William County also is using OCRA, charging $200 a year for an attorney and one support staffer.

OCRA originated in Norfolk Circuit Court, explained Thomas A. Larson, the chief deputy clerk, who hopes to see it become a statewide standard someday. “We’re hoping people are going to jump on board,” he said.

Unlike the federal courts’ PACER system, OCRA is not designed for public access nor is it available for data mining. The rules for OCRA effectively limit it to lawyers and others involved in the court process. The state code forbids selling the data, posting it on a website, or redistributing it to any third party.

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