Records Management and Storage

Standard 3.6 of the Trial Court Performance Standards requires that records of all relevant court decisions and actions be accurate and properly preserved. "Fairness, equality, and integrity depend in substantial measure upon the accuracy, availability, and accessibility of records." Every step in the processing of court cases results in a recordkeeping activity-either the creation of a record or file, the maintenance or updating of an existing record, or the disposition of a record.

Courts are required to store not only active case files, but also case files and court records after disposition. In addition to the court's records, many clerks file and maintain city or county records, such as deeds, land transfers, court judgments and liens, marriage licenses, business licenses, and voting records. Storage space requirements have grown substantially over the years despite the introduction of records retention and destruction programs designed to limit the records that need to be stored or the transfer of older records to state or local archives. And even with document-imaging technologies, courts designed and built during the next ten years will still require careful consideration of traditional records management and storage technologies.

Court cases progress through four stages: (1) case initiation; (2) active status; (3) case disposition or closing; and (4) post-disposition activity. The space needs for records of both active and inactive cases vary considerably depending upon the type of case and the court's level of technology. The introduction of computers during the past two decades brought the promise of the paperless court. Often, however, computers only created more paper, because many courts maintain paper copies of court files even after all of the key information has been automated.

Another technology that has been with courts for many years is microfilm, or micrographics. There are a number of microforms and micrographics applications, including updatable microfiche for the storage of active case files and roll microfilm for long-term storage of closed cases. In many cases the microfilming of court records does not result in the destruction of hard-copy files, and some courts microfilm cases merely as a safety precaution in case the paper file cannot be located. Considerable space can be saved if the introduction of microforms is followed by the destruction or removal of hard-copy files.

Optical disk technology promises the ability to store vast amounts of information in very small spaces. While many courts are moving toward the electronic storage of court records, either in digital form or as imaged documents, this technology is still maturing, and standards have not yet been developed for the use of optical disks for records storage. Microfilm remains the best medium for long-term storage of inactive court records, and in planning a court facility it will be necessary to consider all of the possible records storage media and their potential for future installation.

There are four basic considerations for the filing system for each type of record maintained: (1) the type of record, (2) the filing arrangement, (3) the filing equipment, and (4) the filing supplies.

Each type of record has different space needs because of the difference in the numbers and types of documents that will be filed and the different time requirements for retention. For example, traffic cases generally consist of only the traffic citation and one or two other pieces of paper and are often stored in narrow shelves or drawers. A criminal felony or civil file, on the other hand, can be very bulky, taking up several inches of space in a filing cabinet or on an open shelf. More complex cases may even take up several feet of open shelf space. In response to the filing of more motions, and as computers have be­ come available to produce long documents with ease, the average size of court case files in recent years is growing.

Court case files are broken down into active and inactive files. Because of the limited amount of space courts usually have in the active storage area, there are several different ways to arrange the files. In some cases, all case files from a given year will be moved from the active storage area to the inactive storage area regardless of whether all cases have been closed. One system is to move a year's files when 90 to 95 percent of the cases for that year are closed; another system is to move only closed cases, as they are dis­ posed, to the inactive storage area.

The choice of filing equipment is probably the most critical decision in determining the amount of file storage space. This decision also will affect personnel and space costs for many years. Equipment should match the court application; files should not be forced into outdated filing equipment. The use of shuck or bucket files is false economy and wasteful of personnel and facility resources when conversion to flat filing would improve efficiency. Filing equipment can be categorized as fixed lateral shelving, hanging open-box files, movable lateral shelving, vertical drawer filing, mechanized filing, and other specialized filing equipment, such as card-filing equipment; top or open reference files; large document files; computer-product-filing equipment for printouts, tapes, disks, and platter; and microfilm-filing equipment.

Having adequate filing system supplies, such as file folders, file guides, file supports, and out folders, makes the equipment work more efficiently.

Planning for a new court facility should prompt a review of current records management practices. Courts often have traditional recordkeeping procedures and practices that should be changed. If the court has accumulated large amounts of records, it may not have been complying with authorized records retention and destruction schedules. Determining the amount of space needed for case files first requires the documentation of the current filing system and then an objective analysis of the appropriateness of current practices, including the type of records; the number of years, case files, filing inches, and cubic feet of space; and the type of equipment. The table to the right shows the approximate amount of files that can be stored in different filing systems and the required floor space in Net Square Feet (NSF). No court should occupy a new facility with old and inefficient records-filing equipment. Building a new facility is an opportunity to upgrade filing equipment to make the most efficient use of the new space.

Open-shelf lateral filing with color-coded side tabs is approximately 40 to 60 percent more efficient than the standard vertical file cabinets.