As soon as next month, Prince William County court officials say they will install a highly anticipated computer program that will allow the public to search for case information and documents faster and easier.
The new case management system, which will replace a program dating to the 1980s, will allow the public to point and click for case information in a Web site format rather than using an esoteric set of function keys.
The system's most appealing aspect will be available next year, when it goes online and people can check on a case's status without having to step inside the courthouse or call a clerk.
"This is going to improve the quality of justice and speed of justice," said David C. Mabie, the clerk of Prince William's Circuit Court. "We're trying to stay on the front edge of technology. It's not like we're replacing an automobile with another automobile."
The new system comes just as a $19 million renovation to the courthouse -- including new courtrooms, a law library and more spacious jury rooms -- is on the cusp of completion. The commonwealth's attorney's office, judges' chambers and their staffs' office space all are slated to be expanded as well.
Four years ago county officials recognized that they needed a more modern system to manage the court's 60,000 active cases. In 2000, Hewlett-Packard officials told the county that its staff was no longer supporting Prince William's case management system and would not be able to assist the county as easily should a glitch surface, said Wendy Jones, the chief deputy clerk of the Circuit Court.
Over the next two years, county officials figured out their specifications for a replacement system and in 2002 the county signed a $492,697 contract with McDonald Bradley Inc. of Herndon to design a more efficient, more user-friendly system, Jones said.
Upgrading the court's computer system will speed up some routines that now operate at a glacial pace. For instance, it will allow court officials to e-mail the Sheriff's Office with news that a judge has remanded a prisoner to jail. Now, court officials must prepare a "jail card" on paper -- a time-consuming process that can cause delays in moving a prisoner out of a court holding cell. That increases security problems, said Bob Marsh, the Circuit Court administrator.
The new system will also allow residents to get copies of court orders much faster. Now, people must look up the case and go to the court copy room, where a clerk pulls microfilm and makes copies. The new system will let people instantly pull up an image of the court order, which can be printed, Jones said.
Kristin Keech Spitler, a Manassas lawyer, said she has been looking forward to the new program, particularly when it goes on the Internet.
Spitler said the online service will come in handy when she wants to check when a defendant has been served without having to constantly call the court.
But accessing case information and court orders online won't be cheap. It might require a paid subscription because the court would lose revenue it now earns when people pay for copies.
Marsh said whether to charge, and how much, has not been worked out yet. He also said testing could delay the launch of the system to as late as December.
The new case management system "is going to be fabulous," Spitler said. "It's going to be extremely helpful in facilitating the access to justice and moving cases along."