District court

No one ever said being the guinea pig would be fun.

That has certainly been true for Dickinson County District Court and the other counties located in the Eighth and 21st Judicial Districts. The six counties — Dickinson, Geary, Marion, Morris, Riley and Clay — are the first ones in Kansas to use a new case management system that eventually will centralize all Kansas courts.

Known as the Kansas eCourt Project, the new software, “Odyssey,” launched earlier this month and problems surfaced immediately.

“We went live at 8 a.m. Monday, August 5 and right off the bat eFiling wasn’t working and eFiling is about 90 percent of our work,” said Cindy MacDonald, Dickinson County Clerk of the District Court.

Unfortunately, getting eFlex (the eFiling system used by attorneys) to work right is just one of many problems MacDonald’s office has dealt with. Other issues affect the public, including the inability to put court dockets online and some public information no longer being accessible.

MacDonald visited with county commissioners during their work session Aug. 22, getting them up to speed on the software transition. “In case you hear from your constituents,” she said.

Kansas Supreme Court’s vision

In 2015, the Kansas Supreme Court launched its eCourt project to unite all court case information and business processes on a single platform, according to a news release from the state’s Office of Judicial Administration (OJA).

The first step in that process — requiring attorneys to file electronically — happened by a June 25, 2018 deadline.

The state’s eCourt project focuses on merging electronic document filing (eFiling) with Odyssey, the new centralized case management system.

The Supreme Court had plenty of reasons to look at making a change, explained Lisa Taylor, public information director with the OJA. For one, much of the software in use across the state was old, with some nearing the 20-year mark. Consequently, tech support was no longer going to be offered.

Also, there is no way for one county to look at cases in another county without making a phone call or sending an email, she said.

“The new system will centralize all that information. It’s good for many reasons, including ease of use and ease of access for our customers.” Taylor said.

The idea behind eCourt is to allow the sharing of information across judicial districts and county lines to make the most of limited staff and resources, Taylor said.

The High Court’s vision is threefold:

• More efficient, effective court operations and increased access to justice for the people of Kansas

• Enabling web-based court documents, calendars, case records, exhibits and other digital content

• Standardized statewide case processing that enables workshare and provides a consistent user experience

“Once all courts are using it, from trial courts to the Supreme Court with everyone having essentially the same software, there’s an opportunity for workshare,” Taylor said.

For example, court staff in smaller, more remote areas of the state where there are fewer cases may have times where they could do some of the work being generated in a busy metropolitan county.

“We are required by state to have a courthouse in every county so it’s managing the court system and using staffing resources to our fullest potential,” Taylor explained.

Look at home

Another big plus for the new system is a public terminal that will allow people the opportunity to view court information from their homes and offices once everything is working correctly.

“The new system is going to centralize all that information, improving ease of use and ease of access for our customers,” Taylor said.

Headache for now

MacDonald believes Odyssey will be a positive experience once all the problems are resolved. For now, however, the rollout of the new system has been a challenge.

Besides eFlex problems, MacDonald told commissioners the new system:

• Has trouble interfacing with other systems. For instance, when receiving information from the Kansas Highway Patrol’s digiTICKET, Odyssey will create two or more cases if there’s more than one traffic incident on a ticket.

• Has problems sending case disposition information to the KBI (Kansas Bureau of Investigation) and FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation)

• Has problems sending license suspensions and reinstatements electronically to the Department of Motor Vehicles.

A big problem has been the inability to post the Dickinson County District Court docket on the county’s website.

“I realized just how many people looked at it once it was no longer available,” she said.

She quit posting the court docket because it was showing confidential information and did not list hearing dates, she said.

The second floor of the courthouse has a law library where the public has long been able to access a court computer to view open documents that are public information.

“They used to type in a name or a case number and the information would pull up, except for confidential information. Since Aug. 5, anything that’s been eFiled since we went live, the public cannot see but if the clerks have manually scanned in a document they can see it,” MacDonald said.

The missing documents are an issue for many people, including the media and other record searchers.

“If it’s a public record, they should be able to see it,” she said. “We have abstract companies who come in and do record searches. We hear from people who ask why they can’t see a complaint in a civil case, like in a mortgage foreclosure — that’s a big thing. We had somebody from (a legal research company) who does record searches all the time send me a list of what she thinks should be changed in the program,” MacDonald said.

Many attorneys use the courthouse terminal because they retain their case filing through the eFlex system.

“They are having a heck of a time,” MacDonald said.

Before, people could log onto the public computer and view the information they wanted. But now they have to go to the clerk’s office, have the document printed and then be charged for it, she said.

“People are confused. They’re asking ‘why can’t I see it?’” she said.

Taking the brunt

When it became apparent by the second day of the rollout that the new software was not working right, MacDonald’s office was deluged.

“We caught the brunt of the complaints,” MacDonald said. “People ask ‘why did you change the system?’ We didn’t. It has nothing to do with us. We started sending those calls to the OJA and let them handle it.”

Since many of the complaints had to do with the eFlex system, eventually Eighth Judicial District Chief Justice Michael Powers contacted the OJA and told them they needed to send a notice to eFilers to stop contacting the clerk’s office, MacDonald said.

County attorney’s office affected

Up until Aug. 5, Dickinson County District Court was using a program called Full Court, while the Dickinson County Attorney’s office used a program called Full Case. Both programs were integrated which means staff at the county attorney’s office could make changes in Full Case that were easily accessible to court personnel in Full Court and vice versa.

But after the rollout, Full Court was no longer operational. Currently, the county attorney’s office is continuing to use Full Case in house, but they’re hoping to buy a software program that will communicate with Odyssey. So far, however, the cost of that program is prohibitive.

“It was great before. They could see dockets and any changes we made and any new cases through the queue,” MacDonald explained. “Now there’s no Full Court and they (County Attorneys) have to eFile all their cases and it’s different than it used to be.”

One of the big issues for Dickinson County Attorney Andrea Purvis is inaccessibility.

“We can file things but it will tell us we don’t have access to the cases. So we can’t even get into our own files. We can’t get our documents,” Purvis said. “What my people are having to do is basically create lists and email the list to Cindy (MacDonald) and they’re having to physically print out the files to get to us.

“There was one day where there were 53 documents we were notified were sitting in eFiling for us, but we couldn’t get to them,” Purvis continued. “We are locked out of our own documents or they don’t show up in the system. They say they are there but they’re not.”

While Full Court and Full Case worked well for the local court, it likely wouldn’t have lasted. The company that produced them has been sold to another company and tech support will no longer be available.

As for the two current programs in use — Odyssey and eFlex (eFiling) — they are owned by two separate companies that are supposed to be working together during this transition. However, both MacDonald and Purvis said each is saying the problems are the fault of the other.

“There’s a lot of finger pointing going on,” MacDonald said.

Meeting deadlines

Purvis said the issues have slowed down progress in some of the cases she prosecutes.

“We have deadlines we have to meet, especially for Child In Need of Care (CINC) cases. We have certain notice requirements,” Purvis explained. “If we can’t get to those documents we can’t do what we’re supposed to do within the time frame we have to do it.

“We could potentially be in violation of the law,” she added. “I don’t know the consequences of that because we don’t do that!”

Purvis said she knows some other prosecutors in the pilot area and private attorneys are just as frustrated as she is.

“I recognize that when changes are made that sometimes there are growing pains and I try to be patient. Anytime you’re talking about completely revamping a system, you have to be patient because there are always going to be issues,” Purvis said. “I hope it will be better eventually. But it is very, very frustrating and when it starts putting us out of compliance with the law we’re supposed to be upholding — then that’s an issue.”

Some parts work

While the new software has numerous issues, the judge’s edition is working smoothly.

“The judges love this. They can pull it up on their computer and it takes data from the Odyssey program. Their edition is so simple. It has their calendar for the day, their docket. It shows the hearings, they touch on the case and when they’re done, they click a check mark and they go on to the next case,” MacDonald said. “That part is working fabulously.”

No resolution date

While parts of the new software are not working as they should, all agree the developer is working to correct the issues. However, no one seems to know when that will happen.

MacDonald said on Tuesday it had been more than three weeks since Odyssey launched in the six pilot counties and the developer has moved on to the next judicial districts scheduled to roll out. So instead of reporting problems to the developer the reports are going to the OJA.

Despite the added stress, MacDonald said she is proud of the way her staff is handling the situation.

“People are still coming in with positive attitudes. They’re going with the flow,” she said. “Staff in all six counties are working together. We have the ability to help each other out and the OJA has been extremely helpful. They had people in our office for three weeks helping us figure things out. But this week we’re on our own.”

Until this week, MacDonald and the other affected court clerks were having daily conference calls, but that is no longer happening.

“I don’t want to say I feel abandoned, but I feel abandoned,” MacDonald said.

“We’re the guinea pigs. We’re the first ones, but we sure didn’t expect to have issues going on into four weeks,” she said. “We’re trying to inform everyone that we have a new system and to have patience.”

Contact Kathy Hageman at reporter@abilene-rc.com

Contact Tim Horan at editor@abilene-rc.com.

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