By Doug Ireland
---- — By year’s end, filing a small-claims case in New Hampshire courts may only a take a series of clicks with a mouse from a home computer.
There would be no need to stop off at a court during a busy weekday or to pay a lawyer for help.
Under the New Hampshire Judicial Branch’s new electronic court system, or e-Court, small-claims cases can be filed from almost anywhere at any time of day or night — even on weekends, according to Gina Apicelli.
Apicelli is senior administrator of the state circuit court system, with 32 divisions throughout New Hampshire. They include courts in Salem, Derry and Plaistow, where new computer kiosks and Internet access will be available for the first time, she said.
“They will be able to file from the lobby, their homes, work and libraries,” Apicelli said.
Under state law, small-claims cases involve assets worth no more than $7,500. The amount increases to $10,000 in July 2015.
They are the most common type of case filed in New Hampshire, according to the Judicial Branch. Last year, the state court system handled 22,016 small-claims cases, including 13,118 newly filed cases.
Most were filed without the assistance of a lawyer, but a small number were brought by attorneys. Online filing of guardianship cases is expected to begin this winter, Apicelli said.
The Judicial Branch launched electronic filing last fall with computerized jury selection at the Superior Court level.
The online filing of small-claims cases begins July 30 at courts in Plymouth and Concord, Apicelli said. Filing fees will be handled on line as well.
The program will be tested at those two courts for about three months before it’s unveiled at other circuit courts. The online filing won’t start at Rockingham County courts until at least early December, Apicelli said.
“We’re waiting to learn the details,” said Brenda Santos, deputy clerk at 10th Circuit in Derry.
The plan is implement this phase of e-Court by Dec. 31, Apicelli said. One goal is to eventually provide the ability to file using a cellphone or tablet, Apicelli said.
“We just want to get the cake out of the oven first,” she said.
The Judicial Branch hosted two test filing sessions in June and there were no major problems, Apicelli said.
One involved a group of attorneys. The other included librarians because many people are expected to be filing claims from their local libraries, Apicelli said.
The 18-phase project is expected to last at least five years and revolutionize the state court system. It will increase efficiency, improve service, and reduce paper and costs, according to Edwin Kelly, administrative judge of the circuit court system.
“We are very excited about it,” Kelly said. “We are convinced it will really make a difference.”
E-Court was proposed several years ago, but its development was delayed because of limited state funding and technical challenges over the past few years.
About $5.1 million has been allocated by the Legislature to launch e-Court.
The Legislature agreed last year to double the percentage of court fees to be spent on e-Court. That amount was decreased from 14 percent to 30 percent. Court filing fees were increased as well to help fund the system.
Only half the states in the country have electronic filing, according to the Judicial Branch. Electronic filing is used in the federal court system, including at New Hampshire’s bankrupcty courts.
E-court has received praise from the New Hampshire Bar Association and local attorneys, including Patrick Donovan of Salem.
But attorney Bernard Campbell of Salem is skeptical. He questions whether the court system will be able to handle all the staffing and technical issues involved in implementing the system.
“Do I think it will speed things up and save time? No,” Campbell said. “There will be all kinds of technical issues.”
Campbell said some people who are not computer savvy will have trouble.
Apicelli and Kelly said a small percentage of people may have difficulty with online filing, but they are confident most will not experience trouble. Help will be available for those who need it, they said.