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The Weight of Paper

Court system fights a never-ending battle against lost files

The lost file committee is probably the best-kept secret in the Mecklenburg County Court system. It's not that the lawyers, judges and court personnel who formed it have anything to hide. It's what they're looking for in the chaos of the court system's daily grind that they'd rather the public not know about.

Picture a ticker tape parade with a couple million pieces of paper. Then imagine what it would take to file each one. Now suppose that less than half the people necessary to do the job attempted it under pressure. Only then would you understand what the staff of the tottering court system faces every year. And why missing files have become a problem of near-comical proportions.

"It is very difficult to hold a hearing if you have a file and the very piece of paper that tells you what the hearing is about is missing," said Judge Jane Harper, who has been involved with the committee. "You just continue the case until it turns up."

In family court, that often means asking parents, spouses, children and other assorted plaintiffs -- who often have taken time off from work or school for the hearing -- to come back another day.

Meanwhile, court personnel who are supposed to be doing dozens of other things -- including filing more stacks of important documents -- drop everything and look for missing documents or files.

"I think we do an amazingly good job with a very small amount of resources," said Clerk of Superior Court Martha Curran. "But you get to the point where the quality of what you are doing is going to be affected. It is like running from one fire to the next to stomp it out. Everyone stops what they're doing and looks for that 40th file."

To call the group battling the enigma of the missing files and documents a committee may be stretching it. It's actually a handful of folks who are concerned about the problem and who meet informally to discuss it. The group, which was founded by retired Superior Court Judge Bill Jones, is a subcommittee of a family court pilot project committee. It doesn't have official members, though former county commissioner Tom Bush, an attorney, is said to have chaired it last year.

The point of the committee is to establish procedures to keep files and documents from disappearing.

"The committee grew out of our frustration," said Curran.

When the lost file folks with the family court system began meeting almost two years ago, there were about 20,000 child support cases on file -- the oldest dating back to 1969. That doesn't count the 62,000 new civil cases filed with the family court system each year, or the fact that a total of over 260,000 new cases were filed with the county court system in the 2000-2001 year.

Part of the problem, said Harper, is that the numbers of hands that touch the files is fairly large. Attorneys, court personnel, judges, police, plaintiffs and defendants are among a long list of folks routinely seeking access to court files.

"A staff person would just walk in and pull five files off the shelf and off they went," said Curran. "If someone filed a paper with us for their case, we had nothing to file it in. If a file is in a judge's office and someone files a piece of paper, it is not going to get in the file."

One of the things committee members initially studied was where missing files that were supposed to be available for viewing at the courthouse had turned up. That list included the homes, offices and cars of attorneys, judges and police officers.

"We had some civil files stolen out of a judge's car outside a restaurant," said Curran. "Years ago, a local judge brought in a civil file and said, 'I was moving my desk at home and found this behind it.' We must have literally spent 100 hours looking for it."

Curran said the problem has in large part resulted from the fact that the caseload the county court system handles grows about 15 percent a year, and her staff, which is funded by the state, hasn't grown at all in the last three years. Meanwhile, more judges have been added to the system and more courtrooms have opened for business.

That means that the court system's clerk staff runs perpetually behind on their duties. Curran estimates she would have to hire at least 24 more clerks to even begin to get a handle on the situation, but the state has refused to add money to its budget for any extra help.

"This year they told us don't even ask," said Curran.

The kind of chaos understaffing creates has led to a 30 percent job-turnover rate among court clerks and staff. Curran said that jobs once handled by courtroom clerks are now done by data entry staff, many of whom haven't been trained for the job.

But then, clerks don't really receive much training either.

"New clerk school?" asks Curran with a laugh. "There is no such thing. There is no training money available. There are no training programs."

Curran says that when they can, she and other supervisors have been known to grab a vacant courtroom and conduct informal training sessions for clerks and other court personnel. But there isn't always time for that. In fact, she says, it's not unusual for supervisors to be found in the courtroom, doing the job of those they are supposed to be managing.

"Imagine being the supervisor of 50 people and you have to go to court because there is no other person to send," said Curran. "They're all having to do line work just to keep it going."

Working her staff overtime isn't a solution either, Curran said.

"I have no overtime money," said Curran. "I have to give them time-and-a-half."

To make matters worse, the system also has a serious storage problem. The 260,000-plus cases she referred to may each have their own file, but that doesn't count court calendars, judgment books, court reporter notes, tapes and financial records.

"This is a very paper-driven system," said Curran. "You are talking millions of pieces of paper, millions. Some of those civil files are so huge they're in boxes and that is just one case. The volume of all of this is staggering and most of it is manually handled."

Given the lack of funding from the state, which hits struggling urban court systems the hardest, any improvements to the system will have to done with no money and a concerted effort by court system staff to gain more physical control over the files and their whereabouts.

But Bush, Harper and Curran say the situation has improved over the last couple of years. The existence of the committee has helped raise awareness, especially among attorneys, of the need to handle files more carefully and responsibly.

Physical access by non-clerk personnel has been limited, and the checkout process for judges and attorneys has become stricter. Checkout cards must now be filled out for certain types of documents.

But the three admit there's still a long way to go before court files are always accounted for, and the documents that they are supposed to hold find their way home in a timely fashion.

"The volume of all of this is staggering," said Curran.

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