By Doug Ireland
---- — Whenever it’s time to pick a new jury at Rockingham Superior Court, the names of potential candidates are put on slips of paper and drawn from a box.
That’s the way juries have been chosen for decades, according to clerk Raymond Taylor. But that will change tomorrow, when the court implements a new electronic jury selection system.
Jurors will be selected by computer. Candidates asked to submit basic background information can file their questionnaires online, instead of mailing them and wondering if they were received on time.
It’s expected to reduce postage costs and save time for court staff and attorneys, Taylor said. Court employees will no longer have to pore through stacks of paper questionnaires with handwritten responses that are often difficult to read.
“It eliminates the whole paper shuffle,” Taylor said.
The system is just one of many improvements being made as the New Hampshire Judicial Branch embraces the electronic age.
It ramps up later this year when the state launches electronic filing of small-claims cases as part of the long-awaited e-Court Project.
The five-year initiative is expected to increase the efficiency of the court system through automation — cutting costs and improving customer service, according to project manager Peter Croteau.
Legal documents can be filed and signed electronically, and fines and fees could be paid online as well, he said.
E-Court will be beneficial to court staff, lawyers and especially the public, said Gina Apicelli, administrator of the circuit court system.
“E-Court will help people move through the process more quickly,” Apicelli said. “Cases will move more quickly. I think it’s going to expedite the time from beginning to end for cases.”
Documents could be filed from a home or office computer, she said, without rushing to the nearest courthouse and hoping to get there by the 4 p.m. closing time.
That also means court hearings will be scheduled sooner, she said. Documents could be filed on any day at any time — even if the court is closed, she said.
The electronic filing of small-claims cases will begin at circuit courts in Concord and Plymouth by year’s end, Apicelli said.
This trial run is expected to last about four months and culminate with electronic filing at all other circuit courts by spring, she said. That includes courts in Salem, Derry and Plaistow.
It’s just one of 18 phases of the project to be implemented by June 2016.
“It’s going to be much more accurate,” Apicelli said of the small-claims filing.
About 15,000 of those cases are filed every year.
Lawyers praise e-Court
Although in its infancy, e-Court is receiving praise from attorneys across the state, including New Hampshire Bar Association president Jaye Rancourt.
She said electronic filing will be beneficial to members of her profession. The association represents approximately 7,000 attorneys.
“While it will be an adjustment for some,” she said, “in the long run, attorneys will find it beneficial.”
The public will be benefit as well, Rancourt said.
“You could file it late at night — you don’t have to worry about putting it in the mail,” she said.
Some attorneys said electronic filing at the state level is long overdue, especially since it’s been done in federal courts for years, including U.S. District Court in Concord.
“E-filing is so much easier and so much efficient,” Salem attorney Patrick Donovan said. “I think it’s a marvelous idea. It’s something we’ve been waiting to happen for a while.”
E-Court was proposed several years ago, but its development was delayed because of limited state funding. But lawmakers agreed earlier this year to more than double the percentage of court fees to be spent on e-Court. That amount has been increased from 14 percent to 30 percent.
The fiscal 2015 capital budget allocated $3.2 million for e-Court. That’s in addition to $1.9 million earmarked for fiscal 2013. Court filing fees were increased as of July 1 to help fund the system.
But former judicial branch spokeswoman Laura Kiernan, who recently retired, said in July that an extra $2.1 million would still be needed for full implementation of e-Court. The system is expected to cost $1.3 million a year to maintain.
Kiernan said about half the states in the country do not have electronic court filing.
Hampstead attorney Neil Reardon said the electronic filing of U.S. Bankruptcy Court documents over the last several years has saved him a lot of time and money, especially when buying stamps.
Reardon said he would spend roughly $100 a week on stamps to mail court documents.
“It’s the wave of the future — it has to be done,” he said.
For William Parnell, a Londonderry attorney with an office in North Woodstock, e-Court will reduce the trips he makes between Southern New Hampshire and the courthouse in Littleton, where he often files paperwork.
Having to make fewer trips will save money for both Parnell and his clients.
“There would be a trickle-down effect,” he said. “It pole vaults everyone into the 21st century.”