Estate of Denial:  A newly imposed rule restricting electronic access to Maricopa County Probate Court records means that cases cannot be reviewed without physically going to the clerk of court’s office.

The rule has raised concerns among many of those involved in probate court who say it prevents them from gaining access to their own cases or cases involving relatives. It also has some probate judges and lawyers calling on the state’s highest court to lift the rule, which they described as inconvenient and problematic.

“Apparently these case records were previously provided online in violation of the rule,” Presiding Maricopa County Probate Court Judge Rosa Mroz wrote in a December e-mail. “At this time, however, there is nothing we can do.”

The rule, which prohibits the general public from accessing court records from so-called remote locations, including home and laptop computers, was established in 2009 and has been unenforced for almost two years.

The decision to limit electronic access was based in large part on concerns over identity theft, according to those who served on the Supreme Court advisory committee, which recomended the restriction in 2009.

 Officials at the Arizona Supreme Court, which oversees operations of all state courts, said they didn’t become aware that Maricopa County was making judicial orders and minute entries in probate cases available online until last month, when they ordered a halt to the practice.

The restriction also applies to court orders in mental health cases.

The decision to limit access comes after a 2010-2011 investigation by The Arizona Republic that found Maricopa County Probate Court for years allowed the assets of some vulnerable adults to become cash machines for attorneys and fiduciaries. Judges charged with overseeing these cases rarely stepped in to limit or reduce fees, even when incapacitated adults ended up on state assistance programs.

Stories and columns resulted in court reforms and new state legislation last year designed to make probate court more accessible and establish greater oversight among judges, lawyers and private fiduciaries, who are appointed by the court to oversee the healthcare and finances of individuals incapable of caring for themselves.

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