It's Still Slow Go for E-Filing
By Tom O'Connor
IT'S TIME again for my yearly review of e-filing projects around the country. Last year, e-filing was the legal tech buzzword and no wonder: the 90 million cases filed in the nation's 17,500 courts each year generate more than 1.5 billion documents. An estimated $11 billion is spent on delivering these documents to the courts and it costs more than $2.5 billion annually to pay for storage. Personnel costs associated with paper filing can account for as much as 90 percent of a court's operating budget.
Given these costs, the attraction of e-filing is obvious and the promise of reducing those costs through electronic means produced intense interest throughout most of 2000.
In fact, representatives of CourtLink Corp. even went on record as saying that a "tipping point" had been reached in the decision-making process to implement e-filing in the majority of courts nationwide. (NB: I am a former employee of, and current (very minor) shareholder in, CourtLink.)
That process has, however, slowed substantially. Courts are finding that the integration of electronic documents with their case management systems is extremely complicated and time consuming. Extended time frames raise the costs, and the courts are faced with the conundrum of a more expensive answer to the problem than the cost of the problem itself.
In addition, acceptance by attorneys has not been as enthusiastic as anticipated. As with any new technology, attorneys are slow to embrace the novel system and discard time-trusted methods of document delivery. Finally, attempts to develop standards for document delivery have been delayed by political disarray within the Legal XML group that had been the leader of that movement.
So what is going on? Well, the federal courts have taken the lead in e-filing implementation, at least in sheer numbers. The federal judiciary's Case Management/Electronic Case Files (CM/ECF) project is designed to replace older electronic docketing and case management systems in more than 200 bankruptcy, district and appellate courts by 2005.
This will allow courts to accept case file documents in electronic format and filings over the Internet if they so choose.
The national rollout of the CM/ECF system for bankruptcy courts started in March 2001 with five bankruptcy courts, joined by four more courts this spring. Full implementation nationwide is expected to take another two to three years. It helps that bankruptcy courts are very much standardized with almost identical procedures and forms in every court across the country.
Not so with the federal district courts. Four districts have been using a CM/ECF system for the past several years and they were joined this Spring by two additional district courts. Several more are expected to join in over the next few months with full national implementation planned to roll out starting in mid-2002. But there is much "customization" of the system by these courts, and some are even implementing their own standards. For example, San Francisco, accepts only WordPerfect documents submitted through a Netscape browser.
The CM/ECF system uses standard computer hardware, an Internet connection and a browser, and accepts documents in Portable Document Format (pdf). Filers prepare a document using their own word processing software, and then convert it to PDF.
They then log onto the court's Web site with a court-issued password, fill out file information, attach the document, and submit it to the court. A notice of verification to all parties is generated automatically.
There are no additional fees for filing documents using CM/ECF; only existing document filing fees apply. Access to court data is still available through the Public Access to Court Electronic records (PACER) program and all litigants receive one free copy of documents filed electronically in their cases. Other parties pay seven cents per page for viewing or downloading.
Finally, a special Judicial Conference committee is currently studying the privacy implications of this new means of access to court documents. For more information on CM/ECF, contact Karen Redmond at the Office of Public Affairs (202)-502-2660.
The state courts are showing much more diversity in their approaches. California, for example, only began allowing e-filing within the last year and has been working on statewide standards. A 1998 law requires all California courts to have electronic filing rules in place by Jan. 1, 2003. California doesn't require a signature on an electronic document, some counties take the position that if you send your document electronically, it's signed. Standard paper documents still require a signature to be considered valid.
Various systems are in place in different California counties. CourtLink has projects going on in San Diego and San Francisco; @court is working on a pilot project in Alameda County. Meanwhile, e-filing.com has projects underway in Riverside, Yolo, Tulare and Ventura counties.
What is not underway is the long-hyped project in Orange County. At last report, that system apparently was still awaiting final coordination of all of the courts' back office components to achieve full functionality. The front end user interface from West Group is complete, but the court won't discuss any final release date.
It could be a long wait. Just as we were going to press, CourtLink's Vibby Prasad (vice president of product management), reported that the vendors and the court have decided to change the project from a software application installed at the court CMS, to an application service provider model, run on the CourtLink Web site. The new "go live" date? "Sometime next year," he says.
What has come out of California are two excellent examples of the new approaches to e-filing that are not closed systems. The first is the @Court open source Connectivity Tool Kit designed to allow courts to develop a universal Legal XML compliant interface to connect all their back-end systems to Web-based e-filing systems. The CTK includes multiple components including configuration files, a secure Web server with third party Java and servlet software, a digital certificate for the web server to enable SSL connectivity and connection tools to facilitate integration with backend CMS and DMS.
The CTK also includes full documentation for installation and configuration, sample connectors to back-end contact management and document management systems, and set-up instructions for the secure Web server and e-filing storage recommendations. The goal of the CTK is to allow any court to extend their applications to any Web-enabled infrastructure.
The second California program is offered by e-filing.com, which has designed a "Mass Filing" approach via the Internet using its "One Click" electronic filing process. Users literally can file hundreds of cases at once with one click of a mouse that sends cases in one batch file to the e-filing.com server.
From there, e-filing sends each individual case to the court where the case is being filed. The batch of cases sent by the agency can include cases all being filed with the same court, or different courts across the country. The service sorts them and sees that each is sent to the right court. When the court has accepted the filing, it is sent to a process server to be personally delivered to the defendant.
In Georgia, where the courts recently started accepting electronic filing, the cost of filing cases has been reduced by as much as $12 per case using this system -- a significant savings to agencies filing hundreds of cases at a time.
In Georgia, meanwhile, four courts and four e-filing services (@court, e-filing.com, Counterclaim.com and Verilaw) are about to test a system to transmit XML-based documents to court servers and vendors using different systems. These courts and document clearinghouses today can't easily share electronic documents.
But the use of format-neutral XML tags encoded around content is expected to make it easier to process information received over the Internet as long as the application server receiving it supports XML, too.
The Georgia commission funded research by Georgia State University to devise the Legal XML format under the direction of lawyer Todd Vincent.
Georgia intends to mandate XML as a technology standard if the interoperability testing goes as planned.
In Virginia, meanwhile, the Fairfax County Circuit Court began an electronic filing pilot that became operational in March of 2001 and will continue for an initial period of six months.
The project has been developed and operated by Sensei Enterprises, Inc., a legal information technology firm based in Fairfax, with the assistance of a grant from the State Justice Institute.
The electronic filing system will eventually be integrated into a new case management system expected to be implemented over the next year and a half. In the meantime, the pilot project is not using an XML interface until a more widely available standard is available.
In the meantime, King County Washington (Seattle) has released an Request for Proposal for an e-filing project that is requesting a fully developed software application that does utilize the XML standard prepared by the Legal XML group.
Washington, Rule 17 allows a court to accept a document that is filed electronically, printed, then finally submitted via a process server with court fees and an affidavit that identifies it being delivered on behalf of an attorney.
This type of hybrid e-filing is being offered by e-filing.com in other states, including Georgia and Texas.
Expect more of these types of unique and diversified systems to crop up as the year goes on and courts experiment more and more innovative ways to implement e-filing.
Tom O'Connor, a member of the LTN Editorial Advisory Board, is director of education and training at Seattle's Pacific Legal Litigation Support Services.