It frustrates Bakersfield attorney Jeff Wise that he can’t simply download local court records any time of day in exchange for a modest fee. Federal courts allow it. So does Los Angeles County's court system. But if Wise wants immediate access to Kern County Superior Court’s full library of digital records, he has to stand at one of three computerized public terminals in the lobby of the courthouse on Truxtun Avenue in downtown Bakersfield.

Even then, if he needs a printed copy of a record, he pays 50 cents per page.

“That bothers me, too, that you have to pay to get a public record ... that’s available digitally,” said Wise, who practices civil, family and some criminal defense law.

Have patience, local officials say: A day is coming when the public will have unfettered access to most county court records over the Internet.

But how soon that access might be granted, and how much it will cost, they declined to say. In the meantime, Kern County Superior Court recently began charging some parties new fees for retrieving and making copies of records that now must be filed digitally.

UNEVEN ACCESS

The situation highlights inconsistencies in the state’s superior court system. Although California’s courts system has a policy of encouraging remote access to superior court records, and it has set uniform fees for record retrieval and copies, the state Judicial Council leaves it up to local courts to decide how and when they make Internet access available.

In Kern, the bigger priority now is moving criminal records over to a new system for managing digital court documents.

“After that project is complete, we can focus on allowing the public direct remote access to both criminal and civil case records,” Kristin Davis, public affairs officer for Kern County Superior Court, said by email.

She and a senior Superior Court official declined to estimate when the court will make more records available online and what, if anything, the service will cost members of the public.

There remains some question as to how close the court has already come to being able to offer remote access to its records.

While older records may never be fully digitized, officials say, all documents filed with the court since Oct. 1, 2018, have had to be submitted digitally.

Anyone hoping to receive digital copies by email is invited to make such requests through the court’s website. Otherwise, members of the public must go to the courthouse to use a free public kiosk or pay to receive a printed copy.

Many local court records are available online free of charge at the Kern County Superior Court’s website. But certain key records — civil complaints, for example, the documents at the center of most lawsuits — are not available remotely without a password.

Terry McNally, who retired in 2018 as executive officer of Kern County Superior Court, told The Californian last year that costs associated with digitizing court records are the primary impediment to widening access to digital court records.

McNally said the court saves money by offering access to its records over the Internet. For one thing, it lowers the court’s staffing costs, he said.

However, he asserted that it would be up to the state Judicial Council, based in San Francisco, to decide how courts like Kern Superior will recover their digitization costs.

The Judicial Council promotes maximum remote access to public records, its chief operating officer, Robert Oyung, said. But it also recognizes that each local court system faces its own technological challenges.

MAKING ALLOWANCES

Oyung said the council has no plans to tell courts how or when to make fuller access available online.

The way members of the public have traditionally been allowed to view court records such as civil case complaints has been to go to the Truxtun Avenue courthouse and request them from a clerk.

That practice has been curtailed in recent years, and on Aug. 14, Kern Superior announced it would begin charging fees outlined in a California statute instituted in 2006.

Anyone wishing to look at a record that was not posted online would have to either ask for a password to read it on a kiosk, or pay 50 cents per page for a copy — plus, pay a $15 file retrieval fee for records that take more than 10 minutes to find, or $20 if the retrieval requires going to an off-site location.

Kern Superior’s revenue from charging members of the public file retrieval fees has risen sharply in recent years.

In fiscal 2018-19, the court’s revenue from retrieval fees came to $28,481.49. That’s almost twice what the court took in from such fees two years earlier.

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