COSCA White Paper: To Protect and Preserve
The recent COSCA court records management white paper held a lot of useful information for people involved in the court system and for those who simply need access to court papers. In it, we learn the importance of accurate and accessible court records and the essential need to overhaul the way court records are maintained and managed on a national level.
Both the Courts and the Public Have a Right to Insist on Better Record Management
As more and more older records are being converted from paper to electronic formats and more new documents are exclusively stored electronically, it’s essential that courts establish basic guidelines for the management of said digital documents. While some states have their own standards, there is currently no national standard that applies to court reporters, executive brand record keepers (like the Secretary of State), and court administrative offices.
Defining Court Records
What is considered “of record” varies by jurisdiction, but the COSCA court records management white paper uses its own definition for the purposes of summary: all documents and info collected, maintained, received, or prepared that relate to a case or court administration.
Additionally, metadata must also now be considered court records. Metadata includes information that tracks how and when (and by whom) data was collected, formatted, and used within the court system. It can include video, audio, and other types of evidence.
Organizing a Court Records Management System
A system created for the management of court records should, at a minimum, do the following:
- Include records necessary to business function
- Keep records for evidence of business activity
- Dispose of obsolete records
- Store records
- Provide the ability to quickly access documents
- Utilize the latest information technology
- Afford access to the public
Key Principles Need to Pertain to the Records Themselves
The public expects court records to be accurate and accessible. Reaching this goal requires a uniform—and enforceable—set of standards. The COSCA court records management white paper makes it clear that these standards must always pertain to the records themselves—and not to the people who manage said records.
Clarifying What This System Should Do for Our Courts
There are many factors to take into account:
- Legal compliance
- Universal access
- Timely preservation and disposal
- Factual integrity
- Legal integrity
- Compliance with statutes, rules of court, organizational rules, and administrative orders
Some guidelines outlined in the COSCA court records management white paper include complying with statutes, rules, and directives regarding:
- Creating and maintaining records
- Entering data
- Timeliness of creation and the way data is entered
- Organization including labeling and indexing
- Making information accessible to the public, court staff, and other agencies
- Periodic audits to ensure continued compliance
- Continuing training for staff
Appropriate Security Controls
Authenticity is an essential part of court records management and includes documenting chains of custody and ensuring that required signatures or certifications are present. Many factors can affect authenticity, including suboptimal storage conditions, natural disasters, and improper filing.
In many courts, third-party storage has been used for many years. Cloud services make it even easier to turn to third-party options, but it’s essential to monitor third-party services to ensure they’re meeting or exceeding the standards and practices of the courts.
Monitoring should include the following:
- Chains of custody
- Safeguards to prevent unauthorized access to records
- Assuring technical systems meet reliability standards
- Protecting records for damage
- Redundant capacity in the event of damage
- Controls to find missing or altered records
Access and Preservation Are Essential
Judges, litigants, court staff, and the public all need access to information they’re entitled to access. Electronic record management improves the accessibility of these records while also preserving them and preventing unauthorized access. Essential documents must be preserved throughout their life cycle, and appropriate methods of destruction must be in place when that life cycle is over.
Issues with Paper Record Keeping
Long-term paper record keeping creates expensive issues involving both access and storage. The integrity of these physical documents can be compromised fairly easily, though the ongoing maintenance needed is minimal. Electronic record keeping simplifies the process and makes universal access much easier.
Most records do not need to be kept indefinitely, and when the time comes to destroy them, there are several best practices that should be followed:
- Records should be kept through statewide retention schedules
- Non-essential, duplicate, and obsolete records should routinely be removed
- Destruction methods should be appropriate for the particular type of content they’re used on
- Destruction must be secure
- Periodic records appraisals and inventories should be completed
Defining Governance Standards
For a records governance model to be effective, it must enable courts in the following actions:
- The development of corporate policy: Every court records policy should clearly define the court’s responsibility, what the roles are for various staff members, and the structure of the policy-making body.
- The documentation of business procedures: Factors that should be addressed include record storage, types of file formats to be used, and how imaging will be completed
- The adoption of court-wide standards
- The development of a records management strategy: The court must identify areas of both strengths and weaknesses and develop a clear and specific plan, along with a timetable for completion.
- Creating specific performance measures and ways to improve the system
Courts Have a Solemn Duty and eFileCabinet Helps Them Meet It
Courts, and the people who operate them, are duty-bound to the citizens they serve, not just to maintain their records but to do it with integrity. Never has it been more important than it is today for government agencies to have access to eFileCabinet, a software program that provides everything the COSCA court records management white paper laid out, from secure storage for confidential documents to universal access for documents that belong to the public at large.