VirtualCourthouse: Issue 3.1
Electronic Filing Standards
Open Systems or Closed Systems
Partnerships – Public or Private
Judge Arthur M. Monty Ahalt
The debate continues. It has now been two years since the first electronically filed pleading in JusticeLINK. After a successful pilot, evaluation by the National Center for State Courts and new business case, the public/private partnership JusticeLINK appears ready to enter its next phase.
During the last two years, events significant to the eventuality of large scale electronic filing of pleadings include the enactment of court rules enabling electronic filing of pleadings in over 15 states. The federal courts have adopted standards and several new electronic filing projects have been undertaken.
A current list of electronic filing projects include: CLADD, JusticeLINK, Federal Court projects in Ohio, Southern District of New York, New Mexico, LawPlus — a major increase in activity. A complete list of current electronic filing projects in actual use or in planning stages can be found at http://www.mdlaw.net/ahalt/efile.htm
The debate still continues about the adoption of standards. Many still advocate that the appropriate “open” standards should be adopted such as SGML, HTML and XML. These folks concentrate on the content of the filed pleading and its subsequent use. Others, such as the Federal Guidelines, adopt a more comprehensive approach providing guidelines in: (i) document and file format standards; (ii) process standards; (iii) communication standards; and (iv) security standards. They focus on the communication technique of the pleading. What is becoming clear is a confirmation of the inability to find a “standards consensus.” There continues to be wide diversity in the many different approaches to electronic filing solutions. This diversity should not be surprising, however, because it merely mirrors the vast political, regional, geographic and jurisdictional diversity represented by the Courts of this nation. The inability to find a “standard consensus” is further evidenced by the different approaches represented by the State rules, the different approaches adopted by Court run electronic filing projects and the different approaches adopted by commercially motivated groups.
An additional impediment to reaching a standard consensus is the complexity of the paperflow process within each court and the necessity for existing paper documents to be merged with electronically created character-based document. The electronically created document remains a small portion of the volume of filed pleadings.
The diversity heightens the need for partnering relationships: Public/private partnerships. Public/private/non-profit partnerships. Federal/state partnerships. State/County partnerships. Bar/Bench partnerships.
There has been much discussion recently about the advantages and disadvantages of the public/private partnership. Little attention has been given to the advantages of partnering with non-profit organizations. Among the types of non-profit organizations who might offer help are bar associations and educational institutions such as colleges and universities.
The value of non-profit, local, state and national bar associations has been largely overlooked. Traditionally, bar associations have been the engine of professional education in the legal community. Most all bar associations have mature, credible and valuable continuing education programs. The success of the annual ABA TechShow sets the national standard. Bar associations are ready, willing and able to formally partner in ongoing training for electronic legal enterprises. It fits their mission of serving the needs of the professionally developing lawyer.
The key missing ingredient in most electronic filing projects is document management (“DM”). Many electronic filing planners focus on the communication of the pleading rather than the process of getting the pleading to the Judge for a decision. The focus, however, must account for the mixing together in a logical workflow of electronic documents and imaged documents. This mixing of the new and the old is one of the strengths of Groupware. The advantages of Groupware-based DM are (i) it is already part of the workflow structure; (ii) it is less expensive than traditional DM software such as PCDOCS, Documentum, SAROS & Atris; and (iii) it integrates with Groupware’s own capabilities such as e-mail, scheduling and electronic form builders and knowledge databases.
CourtLink, the national court database link, has completed mapping the screens and is headed into the production stage. Online docket information will be available to the public again early in February 1998. Those who would like to register in advance should contact CourtLink at 1-800-774-7317.
Final marketing plans and software development are nearing completion. What will the new JusticeLINK look like? Continued use of Groupware LotusNotes. However, LotusNotes has matured into the Internet with the introduction of the Domino Server software. The new JusticeLINK will be Internet focused while taking advantage of the new and powerful document management aspects of Documents.Doc Domino for LotusNotes applications. Users will be able to access information with standard Web browser software. Finally, look for a dramatic cost reduction for the filing of documents in addition to the powerful workflow aspects of Groupware.