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April 15, 2014
S. Court lifts moratorium on online access to court records

By Gary Blankenship
Senior Editor

County clerks of court now have the option of providing online electronic access to court records under a Supreme Court administrative order lifting an earlier moratorium on such access.

Judge Lisa Munyon “It does permit the clerk, if they chose to do so, to allow electronic access to court records,” said Orange County Judge Lisa Munyon, chair of the Supreme Court’s Florida Courts Technology Commission, which drew up the guidelines for electronic access.

The order was issued March 19 by Chief Justice Ricky Polson and adopts electronic access standards developed by the Florida Courts Technology Commission and the FCTC’s Access Security Matrix. It will determine which records the public and various government agencies will have access.

The order will not mean immediate online access, as each county clerk of court must decide whether to allow access and, if so, develop an access plan, which must be tested and then approved by the FCTC.

“Manatee County is already doing it; they were approved after they did a pilot project [that provided the basis for the access matrix],” Munyon said. “I think there will be other clerks who will be applying pretty quickly. They have to go through the 90-day process to prove they can go through the redaction process.”

In the order, Polson wrote, “The standards and matrix . . . provide a carefully structured mechanism to facilitate appropriate, differentiated levels of access to court records to members of the general public and user groups with specialized credentials, and judges and courts and clerk’s office staff, based on governing statutes and court rules.”

The standards and matrix were based on a test program from Manatee Clerk of Court Chips Shore from 2007 to 2011, which provided online electronic access while protecting confidential information.

“As part of the process of implementing the standards and matrix, a statewide pilot program will monitor and coordinate all established clerk initiatives relating to online access to electronic court records. Under the pilot program, each clerk or circuit court will apply to FCTC’s Access Governance Board, through the Office of the State Courts Administrator, for approval by the FCTC of its electronic records access system and then apply for approval to provide online access to electronic court records after establishing compliance with the requirements of the standards and matrix through a 90-day monitoring period,” the order said. “As the certification process is implemented, the court will review for approval each clerk’s certification request to ensure that sufficient security measures are in place.”

The order notes that it is part of the trend to both convert the courts from paper to a largely electronic, mostly paperless system and to provide electronic access to court records, while at the same time protecting confidential information.

The court addressed both of those issues in past orders and opinions, including the adoption of Rule of Judicial Administration 2.420, which requires filers to identify sensitive information in court filings and for that information to be protected from public view. Administrative orders, including a moratorium on electronic access until the sanctity of confidential information could be guaranteed, were issued in 2004, 2006, and 2007.

The matrix lists the various groups — from judges to commercial purchasers of bulk records to various police and public agencies — that have access to the records and delineates which records they may see and under which conditions.

For example, judges, authorized court personnel, and authorized clerk’s office personnel have access to all records, except to those expunged under F.S. §943.0585, but access must be via an in-house secure network or through secure Web access. Attorneys of record, who already have access to most documents through the electronic court filing system, must provide a notarized agreement with a user name and password. They then will have access to records that are not expunged or sealed and access may be denied depending on the case type or court order to information made confidential by Rule 2.420 or by court order.

The general public may access records through anonymous Internet connections, but will not have access to expunged or sealed records, or records made confidential under Rule 2.420 or by court order. They also will not have access to images of records in juvenile, family law, and probate cases that fall under F.S. §28.2221(5)(a).

Other parts of the matrix address access conditions for law enforcement, the Department of Children and Families, parties to cases, commercial purchasers of bulk records, individuals registered for subscriber servicers, and other state or local government agencies.

The complete text of the order, No. AOSC14-19, which includes the matrix and the rules for implementing electronic access, can be found on the court’s website.

[Revised: 09-01-2014]