Source of Title recently ran a feature on documents that were
discovered missing from the online records in two counties (see
Examiner Discovers Documents Missing from Online Database). These
incidents appear to have been limited to the online databases, but it
should give us all pause for concern. If this can happen with the
online records, how can we be sure that the records we access in the
courthouse, maintained by the same companies, are not subject to the
same inconsistencies? Truth be told... documents have disappeared from
the computers at the courthouse too.
In both of the incidents covered in the article, the examiner had
searched the records at the courthouse and attempted to access the
online records just to print copies. Upon bringing the missing records
to the attention of the county recorders, they quickly called the
company that maintains their indexing systems and the errors were
corrected. Nobody can say for sure how long these documents had been
absent from the online records, but they had been filed 2 years before
they were discovered to be missing. It also begs the question, how many
more records are missing?
Obviously, computer indexing is subject to many more hazards than
traditional book indexes. Once something was entered in a book index,
it was there permanently. If I check the index today, tomorrow, next
month, or 10 years from now... the records I first found will be there
without doubt. Computers, however, are subject to "glitches,"
data-entry errors, hardware failures, etc.
In our home county, Richland County, Ohio, we have an ACS [Affiliated
Computer Services]indexing system. We have had problems in the past
with missing documents. There were times that you could search the
same name from three different terminals in the office and get three
different results. One would show no results, another would show
some results, and the third would return even more (see
Bring Back The Books!). All of
the examiners were concerned when the recorder decided to cease
maintaining the books and switch to an all computer index and imaging
Nobody could ever satisfactorily explain why we had a "now you see
it, now you don't" indexing system - it was always assumed that the
clerks were making "corrections" and not noting anything in the public
system. This too, is something that we didn't have to worry about with
the book indexing systems. If a change was made to a book index, you
could easily see where there had been a modification.
This latest problem with missing documents was also on an ACS system,
LandAccess.com. In preparing
article, Source of Title contacted the county recorders in the
affected counties and verified that the documents were available from
the system maintained in the office; it was only in the online version
that they were not available. We also contacted ACS and asked what
steps had been taken to address the issue and what they were doing to
ensure that this wasn't happening in other counties they serve.
It has been pointed out before, by some who search online, that the
records they access over the Internet are the exact same records that
they use at the courthouse. I received one call from an abstract
company in New York that told me that even when searching at the
courthouse, they use terminals that take them to LandAccess.com over the
Internet. There is a problem with this... if the LandAccess records are
only maintained on a "best effort basis" and only considered "unofficial
records," what are the official records in these counties? The
caller was obviously concerned.
It is clear that computerized records are here to stay. As these
indexing systems go, I would have to say the ACS system is among the
best I have seen. However, their response to the issue of documents
missing from the online records bothers me.
As an abstractor, I need to know that I can rely on the records I
search. We search only at the courthouse and do not rely on online
searching at all. As ACS points out, the information that is available
online does provide a convenience. Occasionally, I just may need to
check to see if something has been recorded or get some basic
information before I send my examiner to the courthouse. For that, it
is a useful service. However, my concern is that the system we use at
the courthouse is also an ACS system. If LandAccess is only maintained
on a "best effort basis," how are they maintaining the records at the
courthouse? Is there something better than their "best effort"
that I can rely on?
Furthermore, despite the claim from ACS that "each
user who accesses the system agrees to a statement that reads 'assessing
accuracy and reliability of information is the responsibility of the
user,'" I can find no such disclaimer on the
LandAccess Website. If it is
there, they have hidden it well... I certainly didn't have to click on
an "I agree to the terms and conditions" button to access our county
records on LandAccess.com.
Shouldn't that important bit of information
be prominently displayed?
I would have much rather
ACS provided a more technical explanation that would ease my concerns
about the possibility of this occurring with their systems we search at
the courthouse. Of course, that would still be inadequate for those who
search the online records from within the recorders' offices, as they do
in some New York counties. It would have been nice to hear that these
instances were due to an understandable "glitch" or human error, and
there is some monitoring system in place to alert them to the fact that
documents may be missing from their databases.
I really have to
wonder why there isn't some monitoring in place to prevent this already.
All of the documents that are recorded are assigned consecutive
instrument numbers. It does seem that it would be a relatively simple
procedure to scan the records and look for missing documents.
My next contention with
the reply from ACS is one of practicality...
how can a user assess the
"accuracy and reliability of the information?" A user
has no way to know when something is missing when searching a computer
database. Unless you already know that there is supposed to be
something there, how could you tell if your search didn't return a
properly filed document? That is why we do the search - to find
out what is, or is not, of record.
And, why should the
responsibility for verifying the accuracy of a company hired by our
government fall on the user?
In my opinion, that is what the counties contract ACS to do -
provide a reliable platform for the imaging and indexing of the county
records. There should be no disclaimers, and no "best effort" defenses
for their negligence - in the courthouse, or on the Internet.
The counties owe the
public a duty to maintain accurate and reliable records - that duty
should fully extend to those they contract with to provide such
services. The Public Records should not be subject to a "use
at your own risk" disclaimer.