The case for audio files

Bankruptcy court to post MP3s of proceedings

People affected by bankruptcy court cases being held in one area but living in other parts of the country ' such as investors ' will be able to listen in on the proceedings via audio files. The courts will post them online as part of a test project to launch this summer.

The project's sponsors plan to post the court proceedings using the familiar MP3 format that has come to dominate music services such as iTunes and its rivals.
Currently, the public and the news media can obtain audio files of a case only by visiting a court clerk's office and paying $26 for a CD.

'That's fine if you happen to be near the courthouse, but if you're out of town and covering the case, it's a problem,' said Judge Rich Leonard in the bankruptcy court of the Eastern District of North Carolina, who originated the idea of posting the files online. 'This takes away that geographical issue and makes it
a level playing field for everybody.'

Three bankruptcy courts and two district courts will participate in the program.
Leonard's court and a Case Management/Electronic Case Files team within the federal courts' Administrative Office (AO) are developing custom interface software that will allow Internet users to access the audio files.

The team will then share the software with the other four test program participants, which are the bankruptcy courts in the Northern District of Alabama and the District of Maine and the district courts for the District of Nebraska and the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.

Leonard's court is doing the lead programming work for the bankruptcy courts, and the AO staff is leading the development for the district courts.

Text versions of case files have been available on the Internet for some time, but some cases generate vast numbers of pages that are impractical to download and read. 'A lot of our cases ' particularly our big Chapter 11 [bankruptcy] cases ' may last for three or four years,' Leonard said. 'You may have a hundred hearings in a case.'

Leonard said the Enron case was a prime example. 'The amount of documents that were downloaded by people trying to track the [Enron] case was in the millions of pages. Think how useful it will be in the future to be able to listen to the hearings [online].'

The current system is especially burdensome when a case is heard in a remote venue.

'We've had a phenomenon lately where you have huge cases pending in certain parts of the country while a lot of the impacted folks are in other places,' Leonard said. In the Enron case, for example, the hearings were held in New York, but most of the interested parties were in Texas.

Leonard said that if the current test project catches on, 'you won't have to travel from Houston to Manhattan to hear what's being said in the courtroom. You can actually hear the arguments within 24 hours.'

Judges participating in the test project will decide which cases to post online. Leonard said quick, routine cases will not be posted because it wouldn't be worth the time and effort required, and they're not particularly interesting.

Judges may also choose not to post cases that include privacy concerns, although interested parties could still purchase an audio CD in person.

It will cost only 16 cents to access the Internet audio files during the yearlong test project. If the program becomes permanent, the AO's Electronic Public Access Program Office will set fees based on factors such as bandwidth demand and other technology costs.


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