At first blush, the plan by Sacramento Superior Court to start charging to view online court records would seem an obvious and outrageous assault on access to public documents.
Starting July 1, anyone who wishes to see court records online will be charged a not-small fee to do so: $1 per name or $1 per page for the first five, 40 cents for the pages after that. With fees like that, it can add up fast.
Companies that regularly sift through court documents – insurance companies say, or newspapers – can pay a flat fee of $2,500 a year for unlimited access.
There will still be ways to view court documents for free, but only for those who have the time and wherewithal to wait in long lines and have a smartphone to take pictures so as not to incur similar copying charges.
Certainly, this is not great. Putting up barriers to public documents, especially those that put those with fewer resources at a disadvantage, is a step the wrong way down a slippery slope.
But if the fees come with the expanded and better service that Judge Maryanne Gilliard says is coming, then it is less outrageous than unfortunate.
“Every judge on this court believes in free public access to public documents,” Gilliard told The Bee’s editorial board last week. “That being said, we are one of last courts in the state to start charging for remote access.”
On top of that, the court is still suffering from deep budget cuts incurred during the recession, she said.
While that may be true, it doesn’t stop the Sacramento Superior Court from bucking the online fee trend and deciding that providing free remote access is part of its mission and, in fact, a cost savings for the court.
Still, better service is worth something. The court created its own public access system – separate from the clunker that the central courts administration office has dumped a half billion dollars into – that is more user friendly and has quicker access to documents filed. It added a service so that folks interested in a case can get alerts when something new is filed. The court plans to eventually add kiosks to courthouses for people to view digital documents for free without waiting in lines at the counter.
And the fee does help to cover the cost of service. It is expected to raise about half of the more than $800,000 the court now spends for online service.
The plan is to restore full free access once the courts have the ability to do so again, Gilliard said. “As soon as we have the funds to restore what we’ve lost, we will immediate make remote access free.”
We will hold her to that, though we would prefer that online access to court documents remain free. If you agree, send the court an email at email@example.com. It it accepting public comment on the new system until June 6.