VirtualCourthouse: Issue 6.3
A Vision Supporting Multiple Providers of Electronic Filing to Multiple Courts
Judge Arthur M. Monty Ahalt (Ret.) – March 2001
As electronic filing of court documents moves from the pioneers to large-scale adoption, it has become clear the task is much larger than first imagined. The pioneers have experimented with the technology and the market over the last 8 years, and to date less than 1% of court documents are electronically filed. As the pioneers have experimented, several models have evolved:
• Closed systems – the individual filing must comply with the requirements of one provider, regardless if the provider is public or private. Such systems typically require specialized software.
• Internet systems – the individual filing does not require specialized software rather an Internet connected computer equipped with a Web browser.
Further delineation may also be made with respect to who is managing and supporting the process:
• Public systems – those designed, managed, supported and maintained by a governmental agency.
• Private systems – those designed, managed, supported and maintained by a private non-governmental agency. Such systems must ultimately interface with the public systems of the courts
While each approach has its advantages none of these models have proven effective in creating the volume of electronic filing necessary to create the productivity savings, which dramatically improve the administration of justice. Underlying the debate of the most appropriate method to create a significant critical mass is the issue of how a court will be best able to manage and control the workflow of electronically filed documents. Those on the private side argue the Court controls the electronic documents by contract, not possession. Those on the public side argue the Court cannot adequately discharge its governmental function unless the Court has physical control of the electronic documents.
MULTIPLE PROVIDERS-MULTIPLE COURTS
What is needed is an approach, which encourages a variety of models – both public and private – for the electronic filing of court documents. This in part has been the motivation behind Legal XML discussions and projects. To proponents of XML, the use of this technology will deliver open systems to the Justice Community. This notion however ignores three real compelling factors. First; XML is an approach using the Internet for easier data integration between applications and organizations – a common language that helps to define and resolve differences among dissimilar data structures. That said, XML is not an application that can help courts receive, process, interact with, manage and ultimately transfer and integrate the incoming data to its backend systems. Rather XML is simply a methodology to describe data in a standard, non-application specific manner. Second; XML does not deal with the issues of marketing, education and support in order to drive adoption and motivate the legal community to integrate electronic filing into their existing work and business processes. Third; XML does not answer the question of who pays for and supports the administration of systems that will monitor the electronic transactions from multiple and diverse public and private providers.
Defining a standard for the data contained in a document is an essential first step in formulating an open electronic filing process. However, since there are hundreds (if not thousands) of specialized court systems that house this data, there is a real requirement that each of these systems be modified (or new systems created) to receive the data. The process will only move as quickly as money and programming resources allow for each court system to make the necessary changes. If an entity were to take on the daunting task of creating the necessary specialized software interface required by each court system, then any individual filer, e-filing software vendor or public agency could simply submit the filing in a clearly defined format. Software of this type is known as “middleware”. E-filing middleware presents a standardized input methodology and contains the necessary specialized code to prepare and submit incoming data in a form required by each specialized court case management system.
It is this expertise, which CourtLink Corp. (1) has introduced into the market via its JusticeLink middleware product named eFM. eFM offers the following functionality:
§ Front-end XML transaction connectivity.
The software(Application Interface-API) is written to read and write XML transactions to generic front-end systems. The format is open, (XML Filing Protocol, a.k.a. “XFP”), and is very similar to the LegalXML Court Filing Standard 1.0 (CFS 1.0) (2).
CourtLink is committed to adding support for the CFS 1.0 as soon as practical after its formal approval as a recommended standard. CourtLink’s middleware approach anticipates the need to support multiple versions of multiple standards simultaneously in the future.
§ CMS Back-end XML transaction connectivity.
The transactions required for use in the CMS are supported by XML transactions between eFM and the CMS. CourtLink refers to this as a “CMS Adapter”. The only released adapter as of 10/31/2000 is for SCT Courts version 3.1. (3)
§ DMS/IMS Back-end XML transaction connectivity.
eFM supports an integrated DMS interface to FileNET and OTG image management systems, allowing for the documents transmitted to eFM to be written to the DMS.
§ Court Clerk functionality.
In order to file at any specific eFM-enabled court, a user must be ‘registered’ with the court. This is accomplished via a ‘registration’ XML transaction that can be generated by the eFILE provider. EFM supports multiple eFILE providers simultaneously, and a filer (attorney) may use more than one eFILE provider with the same court, if desired. Additionally all ‘submissions’ are available to the clerks for review, (and appropriate changes), before docketing and commitment to the DMS. eFM provides a robust set of capabilities to assist the clerk with processing filings in a fast, accurate fashion.
§ Automated Electronic Receipt/Face sheet
An electronic face sheet is automatically prepared by eFM and pre-pended to the filing. A copy is also returned as part of the XML receipt to the electronic filing system. All filings (original and subsequent) are manipulated by the clerk in eFM. All acceptance, rejection, changing of data, adding parties, fee control, document hierarchy manipulation, etc., is accomplished through the eFM provided web interface.
CourtLink’s eFM solution accepts filings from multiple e-filing providers and contains the necessary procedures to integrate with any court case management system, once the appropriate adapter has been created (4)
. A court using this approach will be able to accept e-filings in accordance with it’s own local protocol, from multiple private providers, such as CourtLink, Westfile, and any other provider. This approach allows the Court to attract the greatest number of electronic documents. The court is free to elect to physically control and manage its electronic documents or to contract with a service provider to perform this function for the court. Thus providing for the greatest possible number of users – allows for the application of the highest common denominator rather than the lowest common denominator.
THE WISDOM OF OPEN SYSTEMS
Instruction for the wisdom of a policy such as this can be drawn for the experience of opening up the Internet and the consequential explosion in its use. The Internet began as a private government-only network, which served the scientific and educational community under the auspices of the National Science Foundation. At the urging of the business community the National Science Foundation began to open up its network to commercial users and then in 1992 Rep. Rick Boucher (D- VA) introduced legislation declaring the Internet open to public competition. The NSF backbone was retired as a not-for-profit entity and was replaced by system of commercial network access points connected to one another. As the government no longer needed to spend scarce resources supporting the Internet, use of the Internet and subsequently the World Wide Web, has grown exponentially. This should be a valuable and instructive lesson for courts desiring to dramatically increase public access and create vast productivity and efficiency gains in the administration of justice.
1 See http://www.courtlink.com
2 LegalXML donated significant parts of the XFP protocol to the public domain for use. These pre-date the LegalXML v1.0 proposed standard.
3 EFM Adapter for SCT Courts 4.0 is scheduled to be released in mid-2001. Other adapters are in development, and the adapter “API” will also be published in approximately the same timeframe.
4 CourtLink can also implement eFile with courts that are not ready for integration, and/or where an adapter is not available. The company has a multi-tier service offering that the court can use to “phase in” deep integration.