VirtualCourthouse: Issue 2.4
Four Steps to Paper Freedom
Judge Arthur M. Monty Ahalt
This Article was first published in the Prince George’s County, Maryland Journal/Newsletter
FOUR STEPS TO PAPER FREEDOM
The infocosim, a place where computing, communication and content converge, a world unconstrained by time, place or form, depends on an environment where paper is not used as a carrier of communications. The first step then to a virtual courthouse or a virtual law office is to develop a place or a strategy to convert the paper processes of the judicial and legal business of this country to an electronic process. Key to an organized approach is an understanding that the paperflow in a court house or, for that matter, a law office is that information flows into the court house and then information flows out of the courthouse.
I. PUBLIC TO CLERK.
The first and most important step is to convert as much paper at the beginning of the process into an electronic document. An electronic document is one which is composed of simple text documents much like a word processing document or ASCII character text. It is important to remember that the priority should always be to motivate the creation of an electronic document as opposed to a scanned document, because of space and ease of use. A scanned document takes up to 25 times the space in the computer memory and hard drive as a character-based document. However, it would be unrealistic to develop a plan which did not have a component providing for the conversion of a paper document to a scanned document (Image) because paper is not going to suddenly disappear. When it is time to file a pleading, the documents which have been created and scanned must be combined as one electronic entity much like a paper complaint and accompanying exhibits. This electronic pleading is transmitted to the Clerk for filing in an electronic package — the equivalent of mailing a paper complaint and accompanying exhibits for filing. The final part of this step is for the Clerk to electronically receive the document and docket the pleading which includes updating the Court’s case management system.
II. CLERK TO JUDGE
In this step, the development process becomes more difficult. It is at this step where the old paper world and the new electronic world converge and are merged together into an electronic case file (ECF). An electronic complaint and exhibits are expanded to an ECF.
Existing paper pleadings and new paper pleadings are scanned and their images are combined with electronic documents into the ECF. When the case is ready for a ruling from a judge or a trial, it is electronically transmitted to the Judge. In the meantime, the file is still available for use or review by other members of the public, the court or other government agencies.
III. JUDGE TO CLERK
This step records the Judge’s ruling electronically. This occurs in several different ways depending on the action of the Court. The Judge’s ruling is placed in an electronic Order which becomes a part of the electronic case file. The electronic Order can also be printed and converted into a paper Order where paper Orders are needed by the non-electronic world. Where Orders are not necessary to communicate a Court’s ruling, such as a trial verdict, the ruling is docketed electronically. In all cases, the Court’s ruling will electronically update the Court’s case management system. Finally, the electronic case file is electronically transmitted to the Clerk’s Office.
IV. CLERK TO PUBLIC.
When the electronic case file is transmitted to the Clerk’s Office, it can be published to the public, government agencies and within the Court as an electronic file. The public who still depends on paper can print any document they wish to have in paper form. For the public who depends on the electronic world, access to Court documents will be viewed on-line on a computer screen.
Once completed, the four steps to an electronic case file will lead the Court, the Bar and litigants to tremendous efficiencies. For the Clerk, the ECF will reduce clerical steps, reduce the movement of the file and give the Clerk’s Office an opportunity to reorganize. For the Court, the ECF will reduce the need for paper to decide, make the Court file always available, reduce the number of steps to record the Court’s judgment and speed the availability of the Court’s judgment to the public. For the Bar, the ECF will reduce the paper costs of filing, reduce the delivery costs of filing, provide organized access to case dockets and provide the foundation for the beginnings of an electronic law office file.
JusticeLINK, the nationally-recognized electronic filing pilot project quantified the savings for the Clerk’s Office and for the law office. Results of this case study showed that the Clerk would realize a 35% savings in Clerk time spent docketing pleadings. On the law office side, electronic filing demonstrated saving a lawyer $7,000 a year in overhead. These cost savings are first the beginning and more will come. However, many clerks, judges and lawyers still are nay-sayers, doubters and fearful of change. For them, the time for change is NOW!!