WASHINGTON -- The federal court system is slowly moving its paper-choked courthouses into the electronic world, making it easier for lawyers and the public to read and file legal cases. But this wider and easier access is leaving the poor behind.
The federal courts last month began allowing the public to read criminal case files over the Internet. Six years ago, administrators began scanning documents from civil and bankruptcy cases into a new computer system developed at the prodding of a clerk in Cleveland who had to use a parking garage to file an avalanche of asbestos damage lawsuits.
No one mourns the end of a paper system where the lone copy of each case file was available only when the court clerk's office was open and a judge was not using it. Everyone applauds an electronic system that allows cases to be filed any time, and case files to be read at any hour, from any location by anyone interested.
Although no one has estimated the nationwide savings, District Court Clerk Patricia L. Brune in Kansas City said she uses one-10th the file space that paper required. Despite its largest workload ever, the office is able to check that every document is filed correctly, even with 11 staff vacancies. "Before . . . we were overrun just moving paper," Brune said.
Now, 26 of 94 US district courts, including the one in Boston, and 60 of 90 bankruptcy courts use the electronic system for some or all files. Appellate courts will convert next year. More than 10 million federal cases are stored on computers instead of paper and more than 40,000 attorneys have filed documents over the Internet.
But advocates for poor people say little has been done to help those who cannot afford a computer or Internet access or the 7 cents per page charged for reading court records over the Internet.
The "plan seems to make no provision for self-represented litigants," particularly the poor, said Ronald W. Staudt, law professor at Chicago-Kent College of Law.
The US District Court in Washington brags on its website that all pending civil cases will be converted to electronic files by Oct. 27. "Thereafter, all filings must be made electronically," it said. But that's not true.
"We just can't require electronic filing by paupers," acknowledged Shelly Snook, aide to Chief Judge Thomas F. Hogan. Pauper cases still will be filed on paper and scanned into the system by clerks here, and at other federal electronic courthouses.
"How quickly will that be done?" asked A.J. Kramer, federal public defender in Washington. "When the other party files or the judge rules, how will word be given to the poor litigant?"
Kramer said his office, which represents the poor in criminal cases, is ready for electronic filing, but in civil cases poor people would not have the access others do. Studies show legal aid reaches only 20 to 30 percent of poor people who need it in civil cases.
The federal system cannot say how many poor litigants will be affected. It does not count pauper cases, where filing fees are waived.
Inmates filed one-fifth of nearly 275,000 federal civil cases last year; most were paupers. About half the 58,000 appeals were filed by people without lawyers; not all were paupers, but 16,000 inmates who filed civil appeals without lawyers probably were.
Federal inmates use computers in education or work programs and, like state inmates, are barred from using the Internet.