By Gary Blankenship
Progress is being made on completing a self-help process for pro se litigants to file forms through the statewide e-filing portal for the Florida court system.
Palm Beach County Clerk of Court Sharon Bock, a member of the Florida Courts E-Filing Authority, told the authority at its October 6 meeting that reviews have been ongoing by various Supreme Court and Bar committees and commissions. She also expressed some frustration at the length of time it is taking to get the self-help system up and running, but added when it does start, Florida will be at the forefront of helping pro se parties.
“We’ve been chomping at the bit trying to give help to our pro se litigants, who are more than 60 percent of the people who use the courthouse,” Bock said.
She attributed some of the delay to a difference of approach, where clerks are anxious to get a “good” product online and then improve it with feedback from users, while Bar and court-related entities want to iron out more wrinkles before any launch.
“In the tech world, the motto is a good plan implemented today is better than a perfect plan implemented tomorrow,” Bock said. “We can begin having a dialogue with people who are using our guided interview process and our forms so we can get better and better.”
By contrast, the legal world is used to taking more time trying to fix bugs before launching new initiatives, she said, noting the Supreme Court’s motto is “Soon enough if correct.”
The portal was created with software allowing what is called Access to Justice, or A2J for short. That allows a “TurboTax”- like process where users are asked a series of questions, and at the end a Supreme Court-approved legal form is generated and is ready for e-filing.
Bock noted a committee of clerks of court, which she chaired, completed questions for small claims, simple dissolution of marriage without children or property, and landlord/tenant 16 months ago. Then around a year ago, the portal authority approved giving pro se litigants the option of doing electronic filing through the portal (they also retain the ability to do paper filing). In the past year, almost 24,000 pro se litigants have registered to do e-filing, and they have submitted more than 60,000 filings, including almost 5,000 in September. That number is increasing by 15 percent a month, she said.
Since the clerks committee finished its questions, they have been sent to a variety of groups for review, including Bar rules committees, the Supreme Court’s Family Law Forms Workgroup, the court’s Judicial Management Council Access Workgroup, and staff at the Office of State Courts Administrator.
Bock presented an October 5 memo from Deputy State Courts Administrator Blan Teagle, who reported that notable progress is being made in drafting and reviewing questions for the A2J process.
“[W]e have made significant progress since the June Bar meetings. OSCA staff, the Family Law Forms Workgroup, the JMC Access Workgroup, and several Bar committees with content expertise in the various areas of substantive law have been diligently working on the project over the last few months,” Teagle wrote.
He added that the packet of questions on simple dissolution without property or minor children was set for review by the Supreme Court’s Steering Committee on Families and Children in the Court (FCC) in mid-October, as this News went to press.
Once the FCC approves the interview packet for this case type, the questions will be ready for programming into the portal, Teagle said.
Another authority member, Supreme Court Clerk John Tomasino, said if Supreme Court review is needed of the questions and forms, that would likely come quickly.
Sarasota Clerk of Court and authority member Karen Rushing said the A2J process will work well with the trend of offering unbundled legal services by lawyers to help pro se litigants navigate the legal system and handle their legal matters.
Authority Chair and Putnam County Clerk of Court Tim Smith said it’s clerks, not other constitutional officers, who have the duty to help pro se parties, and the A2J system will be a large step forward.
“This is a tool that is being developed, and although I am frustrated with the time frame …ultimately we’re going to have a very robust self-represented litigant effort that people of this state can be proud of,” he said.
Bock said the A2J project neatly fits into the efforts of the Supreme Court’s Florida Commission on Access to Civil Justice, which is looking for ways to increase legal access for people who cannot otherwise afford legal services, and The Florida Bar Foundation’s Florida Justice Technology Center, funded by part of the Bar’s $6 million, two-year loan to the foundation, and aims to use technology to meet that goal.
She said most pro se litigants are in family law cases, with most involving dissolutions, but a close second is adoption, “which I am surprised at, because of its complexity.”
Of those in non-family civil cases, 65 percent are in foreclosure matters, followed by general civil matters, contracts, and lawsuits over indebtedness, Bock said. Pro se parties have also been involved in fairly sophisticated cases, she added, involving such issues as slander, libel, negligence, and anti-trust.
There have been fewer inquiries to the portal service desk from pro se parties than expected, she said, since they were allowed to do electronic filing, and most questions had to do with such things as where to file a case or how to add a party
“The pro se litigants are much more savvy than we thought they would be,” Bock said.
She said she would present the A2J progress report at the November 18-19 meeting of the Florida Courts Technology Commission, which oversees court-related technology issues for the Supreme Court, and hopes to be able to begin a communications plan for the launching of A2J.
This article originally appeared in the November 1, 2015 edition of The Florida Bar News