The Connecticut court system will usher in the New Year by moving required public notices to its website and out of newspapers, citing lower costs and the potential to reach a wider audience.
Media representatives, however, believe the move will result in fewer residents being informed of important legal matters and will be another blow to news companies already dealing with huge declines in revenues. A single public notice can cost a few hundred dollars to run in a newspaper.
It’s a concept that’s been debated by government officials across the country, but so far one that appears to have gained little traction amid opposition by newspapers.
“State government’s thirst for keeping information out of the public hands knows no bounds,” said Chris VanDeHoef, executive director of the Connecticut Daily Newspapers Association. “Every branch of government in our state should be focused on getting information that is pertinent to the citizens of Connecticut out in as many places possible — not fewer.”
The Connecticut Judicial Branch has set up a legal notices section on its website that will go live on Jan. 2, when it ends the requirement to publish them in newspapers.
“It is expected that this will save a great deal of time and expense, and provide greater accuracy and broader notice than newspaper publication,” the Judicial Branch said in a statement on its website announcing the move.
Most of the notices at issue are intended for people involved in civil and family court cases, usually defendants, who cannot be located because their current addresses are unknown. While a good portion of the publishing costs are paid for by litigants, the Judicial Branch foots the bill for a large number of people who cannot afford it, officials said.
Judicial Branch officials said they could not immediately provide figures on how much the judiciary spends on legal notices or how many legal notices it pays for each year, because that information is not separated out in record keeping of advertising costs.
But they said moving the notices to the branch’s website definitely will save litigants and the government money because the postings will be free. They also said the online postings will provide broader notice because they will appear in internet searches for the names of the people mentioned in the notices.
“If you Google yourself, it (the notice) will be picked up in a Google search,” said Krista Hess, court operations director at the Judicial Branch.
Current and former news executives disagree that the Judicial Branch website has a greater reach than newspapers and news websites.
“Nobody goes to a government agency internet site unless he already is looking for something specifically,” said Chris Powell, former managing editor of the Journal Inquirer in Manchester and an executive board member of the Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information.
“Government agency internet sites don’t have general audiences. But newspapers still do,” he said. “As a result, newspapers continue to provide a real opportunity for regular people to get notice of things they would not ordinarily be aware of or know to look for.”
Powell also said legal notices help support newspapers and their government watchdog roles.
There also were several bills introduced in this year’s state legislative session that would have eliminated the requirement that local governments post their public notices in newspapers and allowed them to use their websites instead. None of them passed.
Across the country, bills in 11 state legislatures called for removing most public notices from newspapers, but none made it out of committee, according to the Public Notice Resource Center. The center was founded in 2003 by the American Court and Commercial Newspapers Inc., which represents newspapers that report on legal and commercial matters.
Hess said discussions about moving the notices to the website began several years ago after a court official read about how Alaska put its legal notices on its judiciary website. She said Alaska has since seen an increase in defendants who could not be located responding to court requests since it began posting notices online.
Alaska court officials have said they moved notices to the court system’s website because they found newspaper publication ineffective, expensive and outdated due to society’s reliance on the internet and social media.