VirtualCourthouse; Issue 4.4
Electronic Filing of Court Documents
Judge Arthur M. Monty Ahalt
This Article was first published in the Prince George’s County, Maryland Journal/Newsletter
Electronic filing of court documents is a concept that means different things to different people. The diversity of the use of the words “electronic filing” when applied to the Courts of this Country is remarkable. Most all of the language disparity has occurred over the last three years. As recently as 1994, there barely existed a court which used the words “electronic filing.” Faxed pleadings were about the only subject being discussed. Over the past three years, there has been an explosion of the use of the words “electronic filing.” To some, especially the JEDDI organization, the words are associated with the concept of standardized exchange of electronic data and electronic documents. Others, such as JusticeLINK, use the words to communicate the concept of the electronic transmission of a document as an ingredient of the work process or paperflow of court pleadings from the preparation to the filing in court. Others, such as CLAD, use the words to identify a closed non-internet electronic environment for specialized high-volume cases such as asbestos or bankruptcy. Some use the words to describe the electronic posting of opinions and orders of court. Yet others use the words to identify the transmission of briefs by floppy disks or even CD-ROM. Others find the words descriptive of the use of E-mail for the filing of specialized pleadings.
Underlying the diversity of the words “electronic filing” is a debate over whether electronic filing can or should be accomplished by the government or whether it can be better accomplished by private industry. Those who maintain that it is a government function find support in the notion that government has the responsibility to maintain the integrity of public information. Those who side with private industry maintain that it has the ability to stay flexible in a fast-changing technological world. They further maintain that government cannot meet regional needs of the litigating public because of the diversity of the many governmental units represented by the different federal, state and county courts. On the government side of the argument, some advocates subscribe to the enervating notion that the filing system equates to control. My thirty-two years of experience, 15 years as a trial lawyer and 17 years as a trial judge, lead me to the inescapable conclusion that both sides are partially right and need to come up with creative methods to get the “best of both worlds.”
The Court’s primary mission is to resolve disputes. Members of the public who find themselves in the middle of a dispute are primarily concerned with cost and time. Cost and time are only increased by jurisdictional diversity. The public is demanding new and creative solutions to old problems.
Currently there are nine primary organizations
actively involved in the development of electronic projects: Federal Administrative Office of Courts, Federal Office, JusticeLINK , LawPlus , Legal File , Law-on-Line , CLAD , Microsoft/Choice/PCDocs , Image-X , Wade Systems , and West File, contact: Phil Ytterberg, 612-687-4557
What is Electronic Filing?
Electronic filing is the transmission by computer of a court pleading to the Clerk of the Court. The filing should contain all necessary case management and financial information in electronic format. It should facilitate electronic document management for the litigant, the lawyer, the Clerk and the Court.
The ELEMENTS of an electronic file are:
case management integration
financial information integration
work process integration
jurisdictional and regional diversity
supports dispute resolution
litigation community input.
Electronic Transmission. This element has been the subject matter of 90% of the effort. However, this element is perhaps the easiest to solve. The original focus on the transmission has been by telephone access to a wide-area network or by fax.
Case Management Integration. Early efforts at electronic filing have focused on strategies that provide for an automated updating of case management databases. This has proven to be a major frustration because of the diversity of the data elements in the existing as well as the evolving databases. The focus on “standards discussion” has been on this element. Often the focus has been on the Court’s case management. Often forgotten in the discussion are the case management elements of the lawyer’s case management system.
Financial Information Integration. Many court filings require the payment of a filing fee. The initiation of this process begins in the lawyer’s office and ends in the Clerk’s Office. The correct amount of the fee should be calculated by the filing system. The system should transmit or authorize the transmission of money, update the lawyer’s accounting system and update the Court’s accounting system.
Workprocess Integration. As a lawyer prepares a document or pleading for filing, a decision making process moves the document from initiation to final form. After a document is filed with the Clerk of the Court, a decision making process moves the document to a judge to resolve the dispute and then back to the Clerk. An
electronic filing system should automate the lawyer’s work processes and the Clerk’s work processes. It is unreasonable to assume that all documents will be electronic. Thus, electronic filing must include a component of document management, storage and access. The workflow must be understood and re-engineered.
Jurisdictional and Regional Diversity. Many courts exist for the resolution of the public’s disputes. These courts represent different governments: Federal, State and Local. These courts also represent multiple states. The public wants to have a single electronic interface with all courts.
Supports Dispute Resolution. The documents of a case, the case management elements and the financial elements are only a part of the information that a judge needs to decide a dispute. The judge also needs the facts and the law to decide a dispute. All of the information necessary to decide the dispute needs to be available to the judge in electronic format.
Litigation Community Input. Many groups and individuals have a stake in the design and implementation of an electronic filing system. Some of those stakeholders are: lawyers, judges, clerks, court administrators, litigants, rules committees, policy makers, law schools and librarians.
ABA TechShow 99
On March 18-20, the American Bar Association held its Annual Technology Show. If you have not attended this event, you should put it into next year’s budget. You will hear and see the top technology applications for lawyers and judges. The first presentation on electronic filing of court documents was made three years ago. About 15-20 individuals attended the presentation. This year, there were four separate presentations on electronic filing by six organizations explaining their electronic filing projects. At some of the presentations, there were over 100 persons in attendance. On the final day of the show, a discussion group undertook the difficult topic of electronic filing standards. The pace of the commencement of electronic filing projects has clearly accelerated on the national scene.
by Judge Arthur M. Monty Ahalt – April 1999