Malware Shutters Philadelphia Court Websites, Grinding Legal Business to a Snail's Pace

Philadelphia court websites and e-filing system have been down since May 21

On an otherwise quiet afternoon at Philadelphia City Hall — while children played outside in Dilworth Plaza and tourists posed for selfies — a frantic energy surrounded Room 296.

A line of people snaking out of the Office of Judicial Records pulsated with the unmistakable nervousness that comes when a city office is about to close for the day and business remains unfinished.

That line stretched back about two weeks when Philadelphia city court websites were first shut down after malware was found on a “limited number” of First Judicial District computers, according to court officials. 

“It’s terrible,” West Philadelphia resident Tyree Moment said. “There is no clear direction what to do.”

As a precaution, the Philadelphia court online system went completely dark on May 21. Its entire electronic filing system for civil and criminal cases and several email accounts were suspended. That is the same system used by attorneys to file motions and petitions. It’s also the same network people use to access their criminal filings.

Two weeks later, trying to access court websites results in a timeout for web users. Only online criminal dockets remain accessible while cyber security experts work to fix the problem. 

Court officials still don’t know when the system will be back up and running. A spokesperson for the First Judicial District — which houses the Court of Common Pleas, Municipal Court and Traffic Court — declined to comment for this story "so as not to provide any detail-specific information that could jeopardize the remediation process."

According to the last update provided by FJD, "there is no definitive timetable for when these services will be fully operational."

As a result, lawyers and residents are forced to do things the old-fashioned way: by hand and foot.

"It’s really making an impact," Philadelphia lawyer Glen Morris said. "Obviously, it’s difficult to leave one's office and come down to City Hall and to have to file like we did 20 years ago."

E-filing for civil cases has been around for eight years, and about half that time for criminal matters, according to a spokesperson from the First Judicial District. Many law firms and lawyers have gotten used to doing things online. Now, clerks and attorneys must shuffle between City Hall and their offices several times a day.

When asked if his clients are worried about their information being compromised, Morris said most of them aren’t even aware the court system is down.

"It’s more on the shoulders of attorneys," he said.

Philadelphia is one several cities recently hit by a computer virus. Last month, Baltimore City Hall servers were infected by ransonware, a nefarious subset of malware. That attack cost the city an estimated $18.2 million, according to the Baltimore Sun.

A spokesperson for the Defender’s Association of Philadelphia said that while paperwork has increased for their lawyers, no cases have been adversely affected by the ongoing computer network shutdown. The Philadelphia District Attorney's Office had a similar response.

But law clerk Sarah, who asked NBC10 not to use her last name, estimated that she had visited Room 296 two or three times every work day for two weeks.

“I could not imagine this being a part of the job,” she said. “It’s a lot. I would not have lasted.”

Walking and taking time away from the office are not the only problems, she said. Human error has become a major concern now that clerks must do everything by hand.

“Here at the court they tell you one thing and back at the office they might tell you something else,” she said.

Tyree Moment can sympathize. He first went to Room 278 to file paperwork for a civil matter. He waited in line there and when he finally got to the front, he was told to wait in another line outside Room 296. As he flipped through dozens of pages, occasionally stopping to squint, Moment shook his head.

“I’m not a lawyer,” he said. “I don’t know the legal proceedings.”

Despite the confusion, some city departments have tried to maintain the status quo. Earlier in the week, a Philadelphia judge rejected an emergency motion to postpone sheriff’s sales scheduled for June, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported. Homeowners can still appeal their cases individually.

Residents are also advised to check the official Philadelphia courts Twitter account for updates. On Tuesday, new URLs for paying traffic tickets were provided and can be accessed here. The Philadelphia Sheriff’s Department is also tweeting updates

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