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Local

Open government survey: Accessibility to court records varies

Lee County’s documents can be seen on courthouse computer

Court records are public documents, accessible to anyone unless they’ve been specifically sealed by a judge. That includes everything from divorce files to DUIs to murder.

Open, yes, but their ease of accessibility varies from county to county, and depends on decisions made by the county’s circuit clerk.

In Lee County, the process is relatively simple. Anyone can go into the circuit clerk’s office, and log in to the closed-circuit system to look up any unsealed document via an easily accessible computer meant to allow the public to do just that.

Lee County Circuit Clerk Denise McCaffrey said the decision to start scanning the documents, as opposed to having a clerk look up the file and hand it to requesters, was made to help streamline the system.

“I did that so the court could see images and other offices in the county could see images without coming here and pulling the file,” she said.

The system is accessible only through computers included in the court system’s network, such as the offices of state’s attorney and the public defender.

So, because documents are already being scanned, why are they not just posted online to a government database, as federal court records are?

McCaffrey said the Illinois Supreme Court won’t allow that just yet, but it’s not something to disregard in the future.

Her offices started scanning the documents in the fall of 2007, and any unsealed record filed after Jan. 1, 2006, is able to be seen. If someone wants a file from before that date, a clerk will still have to find the file folder.

In Whiteside County, the public’s access to court records is a little different. To see a file, like in Lee County, a person still has to go to the clerk’s office. But, unlike in Lee County, the public’s access to viewing court documents on a computer is a little more restricted.

Whiteside County Clerk Susan Ottens said her office has just started to use a program that allows scanned documents to be visible on computers, but it’s slow-going. She said the first time a group of documents was sent out to be professionally scanned, the person missed quite a few documents. Now the office is searching for a new business to do the scanning. She hopes to have all documents scanned, and a computer that allows the public to view those documents, before 2020.

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