Issue 3.7 Creating An Electronic Case File

VirtualCourthouse; Issue 3.7
Creating An Electronic Case File

Judge Arthur M. Monty Ahalt

This Article was first published in the Prince George’s County, Maryland Journal/Newsletter



The centerpiece of the virtual courthouse and the virtual law office is the electronic case file (ECF). An ECF is the compilation in electronic format of all relevant materials for the judge to decide a dispute or a lawyer to represent a client. In order for a judge and a lawyer to achieve time and space efficiencies, they both must create an electronic case file. Common sense would instruct that the judge and the lawyer should jointly participate in the development of the ECF because of the interdependent nature of their work. As we shall see, many of the elements of the lawyer’s ECF and the judge’s ECF are similar if not the same. Before we examine those elements, a building process must be structured. That process is composed of:

Creating a foundation for change

Understanding the workflow of a judge and a lawyer.

Defining the elements.

Selecting the technology.

The process is sequential with each step building upon the prior step.

Step 1: Creating a Foundation for Change: Embrace Change as a Friend not an Enemy.

Change is an inevitable product of the technology offered by the information age infocosim. Ordinarily, people resist, fight or ignore change. When those dynamics of resistance occur, change in people’s work patterns occur very slowly and productivity decreases. On the other hand, when change is embraced with an attitude of acceptance, people’s work patterns change very fast and productivity dramatically increases.

Change is the master of all productivity improvements. Without change, there is little room for improvement. With change, the foundation for improvement is set. Change, however, does not guarantee improvement and success. Many have examined the elements of change over the last decade. Some have taken a more radical approach while others have taken a more methodical approach. A little of both is probably needed.

Step 2: Understanding the Workflow of a Judge and a Lawyer.

The nature of the workflow of a judge and a lawyer is similar in many respects. In its simplest form, it is a process of information coming in, decision, and then information going out. For the judge, that process can be broken into four separate stages: (i) public to clerk; (ii) clerk to judge (information in); (iii) judge to clerk; and (iv) clerk to public (information out). For the lawyer, the phases are similar: (ii) client to lawyer; (ii) public to lawyer (information in); (iii) lawyer to court; (iv) lawyer to public; and (v) lawyer to client (information out).

Step 3: Defining the Elements

The elements of a judge’s ECF are: (i) the docket of court filings; (ii) the electronic court filings or electronic images of court filings; (iii) the law in electronic format; (iv) the evidence — an electronic recording or transcript of the testimony, the exhibits as electronic images; and (v) the court’s decision. The elements of a lawyer’s ECF are: (ii) the docket of information received; (ii) the images of each document received; (iii) legal research; (iv) legal memoranda; and (v) court filings.

Step 4: Selecting the Technology

The technology necessary to support an ECF consists of hardware and software. On the hardware side of the equation, personal computers (PCs), servers and modems form the hardware infrastructure. On the software side, office suite software (word processing, spreadsheet database, presentation), GroupWare, communication and imaging/file management software form the software infrastructure.

The most critical software, however, is GroupWare. GroupWare is defined as any application that promotes communication, collaboration and coordination among teams of people. There are presently four main organizations that provide a GroupWare solution: (i) IBM-Lotus Notes 4.5 powered by Domino 4.5; (ii) Microsoft-Exchange; (iii) Novel-Groupwise; and (iv) Netscape-Suitespot.

The concept of GroupWare is broken down into two areas: Commonware and Workflow. Commonware consists of: (i) e-mail; (ii) calendaring/scheduling; (iii) discussion databases; and (iv) publishing document databases. Workflow consists of three components: (i) knowledge database; (ii) tracking application; and (iii) workflow applications. For purposes of visualization, the following client depicts this breakdown:

All four GroupWare providers provide the commonware elements. However, the workflow element is provided only by IBM-LotusNotes 4.5 for Domino.

CourtLINK Watch: Electronic Access to Court records will soon be available. The Court, the County and CourtLINK have signed the Licensing Agreement. Watch for a formal announcement for subscription information by mid-September. You also should check for opening dates at the CourtLINK website: www.courtlink.com or call 1-800-774-7317 to pre-register.

by Judge Arthur M. Monty Ahalt РSeptember 1998

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