By Gary Blankenship
As it made plans about expanding and improving its e-filing services for the state courts, the Florida Courts E-Filing Authority also heard that its system is one of the most advanced and trouble- free for any state.
The authority is in charge of the Internet portal through which all e-filing is done. At their August 7 meeting, authority members made plans for adding more non-attorney users to the e-filing system, improving services for attorney users, coordinating future plans for improvements with the Florida Courts Technology Commission, and was updated about the first pro se parties to use the portal.
But they also got a highly encouraging report from former Supreme Court Clerk Tom Hall, who advises the authority and county court clerks on e-filing issues, on how Florida compares to other states when it comes to e-filing.
Hall said he recently attended the annual meeting of the National Conference of Appellate Court Clerks and sat on a panel discussing e-filing for state courts. He said he was startled to find that although Florida came later to e-filing than many other states, it now “is by far ahead of the curve.”
That’s because few other states have one integrated system to serve both trial and appellate courts. Additionally, Florida has avoided expensive mistakes that have bedeviled some state efforts.
“There’s an extensive 80-page white paper that was done [for the conference]. It gives a detailed status on where e-filing is in all of the state appellate courts,” Hall said. “There are very few states, and Florida is one of them that are attempting a total, top-to-bottom e-filing system. There are about six states doing it and others are attempting it. There is certainly no one as far along as we are.”
He noted Alabama has electronic filing for its courts, but the system is voluntary. Oklahoma is working on an integrated system but ran into problems and changed vendors after spending $20 million on the initial one. Colorado’s appellate courts will still require paper filings for its court of criminal appeals to back up electronic submissions when its system is finished.
California spent millions trying to get an integrated statewide system, gave up, and started again, he said.
Hall said when he reported at the panel discussion that Florida’s e-filing system is handling 1.1 million filings covering 1.7 million documents a month, many clerks from other states were amazed. Some asked him if those were annual instead of monthly figures.
He said the Florida system goes far beyond what other states are doing in that it is one system for all levels of the state court system, and it’s tied into case management systems for the clerks and courts and also has a way for paying filing fees. “We integrate those so it looks seamless to a user, or it’s supposed to look seamless,” Hall said.
“Though we have glitches and we have problems, we’re way ahead of the curve with other states,” Hall said. “There are states that have e-filing at different levels of the court system all across the state, but they’re different systems [for each level]. We’re doing a great job overall, and lots of other states are looking to us on how we pulled it off.”
(The First, Third, Fourth, and Fifth district courts of appeal are not yet using the portal, but are using an older system. They are expected to join the statewide system soon.)
Authority Chair and Putnam County Clerk of Court Tim Smith noted that efforts are continuing to expand and improve the Internet portal through which e-filing is done and the e-filing system. He credited a wide array of parties for working together to get e-filing off the ground after a 2009 legislative mandate to bring e-filing to Florida’s courts.
“We now are moving into a more mature system,” he said. “We now look forward to enhancing and refining and fine tuning what we do, but we don’t want to lose sight where we’re coming from and the great accomplishment we have.”
He particularly thanked immediate past Supreme Court Chief Justice Ricky Polston for pushing all parties to work together to get e-filing running effectively.
Hall’s comments came after the authority board earlier in the meeting got updated on portal operations and took steps to further expand the ability for the portal to handle electronic documents needed for court operations.
Jennifer Fishback, portal project manager, told the board that since judges and pro se parties were allowed to file through the portal on June 20, 177 of the state’s almost 1,000 judges have registered with the portal and 2,253 pro se litigants have registered. In July, pro se parties made 1,099 filings with 2,162 documents. Judges did 699 filings with 799 documents for the month.
And in an experience that mirrors paper filings by pro se parties, Fishback said about 11 percent of the pro se filings had errors and had to be returned for correction. That compares to an error rate from attorneys of around 2.3 percent. She also said calls to the portal’s Service Desk also went up “a little” because of inquiries from pro se parties.
Times to resolve service desk calls also rose as Fishback said personnel were careful to make sure they resolved problems encountered by pro se filers.
Fishback also updated the board on two sets of changes coming to the portal, one on September 20-21 and the second a month later.
The first will expand the range of people and agencies who can file court documents through the portal. The portal began by allowing attorneys to e-file and then in June added judges and pro se parties.
The new upgrade will allow court reporters, mediators, process services, law enforcement, state agencies, mental health professionals, and similar entities to file court documents through the portal.
The October 24-25 update will make several changes, Fishback said. One will allow clerks to electronically file documents related to prisoner sentencing directly with the Department of Corrections. Another will allow larger documents to be filed in appellate cases and a third will remove unnecessary email data from portal records.
Two changes will be aimed at helping attorney users of the portal, Fishback said.
One will help attorneys select the type of document they wish to file. Currently, attorneys can use a search function or go through drop-down menus to select a document type for their filing. Fishback said with the change, attorneys and other filers will be able to start typing a document type and the portal programming will then suggest document types that fit the description, much like Google and other search engines’ software help users define a search topic.
The second change will allow “bulk” management of e-service email addresses. Fishback said currently, each email address must be added or removed individually from each case that person is involved in. If an attorney or paralegal leaves a firm, he or she, or the firm, would have to go to every case that person was involved in to remove them from the service list. The new change will allow one operation to remove that person from all the cases.
“Filers say, ‘I want to remove myself from all the cases I’m on a service list, because I’m leaving this office.’ We’re adding the ability to do that,” Fishback said. “We’re hoping to give them a mechanism to better maintain these e-service lists that people rely on so much.”
Authority member and Sarasota County Clerk of Court Karen Rushing said the software update, particularly in helping select document types, could help the authority pursue its goal of uniformity in how the portal appears and works between various counties. Each county clerk designed their own portal page, and consequently there are differences in menu selection and drop-down menu options from county to county.
The authority has been working to narrow those differences, and that was one of the charges given to the e-filing system by Justice Polston. Smith said he is working with the portal vendor to bring greater uniformity as part of the portal update.
On another matter, the authority board approved a policy proposed by Smith on coordinating changes in the e-filing process with the Florida Courts Technology Commission. The policy grew out of alterations in June, that were criticized by some users, that changed the e-service system run through the portal.
Initially, participants in a case registered their email addresses when they wished to have e-service, and also the email addresses of those they wished to get copies of any filed documents. That could include clients, paralegals, legal assistants, and others. However, only the person who added an email address could remove that address from the list, and some attorneys said they were being deluged with filings in cases they were no longer involved in.
The June change to portal software ended automatic e-service to all the addresses on the service list, and instead required filers to check a box to serve all the addresses on the list or to review the list and individually select which addresses will be served. Critics said selecting the “serve all” option would not fix the problem of serving parties no longer involved in the case while individually selecting addresses raised the risk of omitting required service to a party.
Smith’s proposal requires that, except in an emergency, that revisions to portal software be approved by the authority board and submitted to the Florida Courts Technology Commission no later than 30 days before the changes are scheduled to be made. (The FCTC is in overall charge of the transition of Florida courts from paper to electronic files and records.) The state courts administrator will also be copied on the changes.
The policy asks the chair of the FCTC to notify the authority within 10 days of any objections or concerns. In an emergency, the authority chair will directly contact the FCTC chair about the changes.
The policy does not apply to routine maintenance or alterations that do not affect how filers use the portal.
Authority member and Supreme Court Clerk John Tomasino suggested increasing the notice to 45 days, but his motion died for lack of a second. The authority board then unanimously approved the policy.
This article originally appeared in the September 1, 2014 edition of The Florida Bar News