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Courts charging for online access
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OAKLAND  (AP) — A Northern California county has begun charging people to look at civil court records online — part of a trend at cash-strapped courthouses around the state that is raising concerns among some lawyers and public access groups, a newspaper reported.

As of April 23, Alameda County Superior Court charges $1 for each of the first five pages of a civil court record downloaded online, the Oakland Tribune reported on Monday .

The per-page viewing cost drops to 50 cents after the fifth page, and there is a $40 maximum charge for any single document.

Sacramento County Superior Court is implementing a similar fee structure this summer, the Tribune reported. Fees in the Los Angeles County Superior Court system start at $4.75 for each record search. Santa Clara County plans to begin charging in two to four years, according to the Tribune.

Court officials say the fees help make up for cuts in state aid.

“There’s a budget crisis in the courts,” said Teresa Ruano, spokeswoman for the state’s Administrative Office of the Courts. “Revenue is part of the solution, a small part of the solution.”

Each court decides whether it wants to charge a fee for records, though the state sets the maximum amount that can be charged for both paper and online records. Some counties don’t put records online, forcing people to come in and visit the clerk’s office.

Critics say the fees may limit access to records.

“While it is true that the courts have experienced very severe budget cutbacks, and they have to do everything they reasonably can to align their costs with their revenues, they have to do that in a way that doesn’t basically declare the court system to be completely off-limits to the people,” said Peter Scheer, director of the San Rafael-based First Amendment Coalition.

Scheer said Alameda County’s fees are among the highest he has heard of.

Leah Wilson, Alameda County court’s executive officer, said in addition to making up for cuts in state aid, the fees are intended to cover the cost of scanning and uploading documents. Alameda County’s Oakland courthouses scanned about 185,000 documents in January while the Hayward Hall of Justice scanned another 56,000 documents, according to an analysis by the court reported by the Tribune.

Wilson said the court is considering allowing free access to certain groups, such as nonprofit organizations and government entities.