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Dust, Must, and Archives - Part III

by Greer Illingworth (JD '10),

Lots of developments on the archives since I last wrote on the subject. Two weeks ago, the case files from 1980 forward had been organized according to year, bundled, and placed on shelves in chronological order. This was a big accomplishment and much to be happy about. In reality, though, we had just scratched the surface. The place was still a mess with much more, harder work still ahead.

To start, all of the cases from 1979 and before were still crammed floor to ceiling in a dank side room because of insufficient shelving. Further, those files fortunate enough to be placed on a shelf were not indexed in any fashion; so if a court orderly was tasked with finding a case he or she could only go to the year it was handed down and have to sift through the hundreds of files for that given year. Even then the odds of finding the case were mediocre since so many of them have been misplaced, destroyed, or damaged over the years. When organizing, I sometimes found entire years worth of cases missing; and on average, for every hundred case files, forty were probably gone.

Who knows what has happened to them over the years, but one the most illustrative stories on the bad state of things was told to Micheline and I by the Registrar of the Criminal Court. He told us of a experience he had while shopping at Owino, a chaotic open air market in central Kampala. After making an order for some chapate (greasy flour based flatbread), the vender, as is customary, wrapped the food in scrap paper before handing it over. When the registrar received the order, though, he was startled to find that the scrap paper being used was High Court case documents. He stood there and could not believe that the court records keeping system had gotten so bad, so compromised that judicial decisions were now being used for wrapping greasy food at open air markets. As can be guessed, next to none of these cases are digitized. The lone paper copy is all the court has to document the proceeding and save the ruling handed down by the court.

Recognizing an opportunity to help in a very practical and lasting way, Micheline and I put together a rough strategy to help the court get things on track for both the near and long term. First, any capital shortcomings needed to be addressed – expanded shelving built, storage room completely cleaned, and outlets installed for a computer workstation. Both of us knew going in that the court would have no money to fund these needed changes and we weren't sure where the money would come from, but we nonetheless made initial preparations for the project to begin. We consulted two sources to see how and at what price shelving could be built. The first option was to commission the inmates going through woodshop training at Lizirya Maximum Security Prison to do the job. The second option was to have a local carpenter do it. We thought the first option would be best both for cost and to help give the inmates the chance to learn a skill for life after prison. However, after meeting with and walking through the project with prison officials, they sent us back an unacceptable price quote. Micheline and I had naively thought the expenses would be limited to building materials and some minor labor costs; however, after including all the wasteful government fees that was not the case at all. The quote we were given was $1,693.12; too much for what we were asking them to do. As a result, we had the privately run woodshop take a look and got a much better quote of $775.00 (another fine example of the marketplace being far better than government – even with free labor the Ugandan government couldn't do the job at a more competitive price than a humble carpenters shop).

The issue now was finding the money to pay for the project. I decided to go out on a bit of a limb and contact Pepperdine to see if the university would be willing to front the money necessary. Unlike many law schools that would probably have scoffed at or completely disregarded such a request, Pepperdine stood behind the idea and agreed to front all of the money. The news from Malibu came as a welcome relief and we immediately worked out a payment plan with the builder. Work began right away with the goal of finishing it before we left on August 1. The court officials were very excited. I'll never forget the look of thanks that a member of the IT staff had on his face I told him of the plans. He had been fighting for years to modernize the archives and now things were happening. He shook my hand and simply said "I wish you guys were staying longer."

Pepperdine has a mission statement that charges to strengthen its students' lives of "purpose, service, and leadership." I learned this past school year that they mean what they say. When I decided I wanted to serve in Uganda, the university set up communications with the appropriate officials and helped me ensure the funding was available. When a group of law students wanted to go to Mexico on a homebuilding trip, the university helped get the finances in order. And this is just the tip of the iceberg. In total, Pepperdine spent at least $123,000 over the summer so that students could pursue public interest work both in the US and abroad. Pepperdine's mission statement is not just hot air or some marketing device to attract prospective students. It is a genuine expression of their commitment to help its students grow and serve. Pepperdine is a special place.

With construction underway, Micheline and I began to get the second stage rolling: implement an indexing system so that the judicial decisions could then be properly organized and maintained by the court. We facilitated a meeting with the Registrar of the Criminal Court, the Records Supervisor, and the IT Department to discuss how to move forward. Bringing these parties together, we were able to get them to all agree on employing an electronic indexing software at their disposal, known as CCAS. Under CCAS, the case classification info and judicial opinion are in
putted by a court orderly and safely stored in this e-database as a soft-copy. Then, the paper copy is indexed and shelved according to its denoted location. This way, whenever a court orderly in the Criminal Registry is asked to find a case all that he or she needs to do is look it up in CCAS and either print it off right there or find the indexing number, go to that spot on the shelf and pull the file. It is very straight forward and far more efficient then the present system – send someone down to the basement to spend hours digging through the piles of judgments strewn across the floor. The meeting concluded with a degree of excitement that this model, if successfully adopted, could do much to transform the court record keeping system into a reliable, organized process.

The great hurdle, however, is inputting the mountains of case info into CCAS and then accurately shelving the file. The task in and of itself isn't hard, but it is boring and the lackluster management, insufficient training, and poor morale of the court orderlies means that any work will likely need to be closely overseen until firmly established. The seeds have been planted, we'll have to wait and see how the implementation plays out.

I'll report back shortly on the final developments before I leave to return to the US.