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January 1, 2013
E-service to be part of e-filing

Electronic service of notices and case documents will eventually be included as part of the Florida court’s new statewide electronic filing system, but the authority overseeing the portal that is the entrance to the system plans to ask the Legislature for money for the authority’s operation and to help educate users.

The Florida E-Filing Authority Board Chair Tim Smith, Putnam County clerk of the court, reported at the authority’s December 13 meeting that a special staffer has been hired to work on e-service issues.

Carolyn Weber has joined the Florida Court Clerks & Comptrollers, which the authority has subcontracted for the development of the portal, and she will concentrate on the e-service component, Smith said.

Throughout the fall, questions had been raised about whether e-service was included in the services that would be provided free for lawyers through the portal, or whether lawyers and other users might be charged extra. Court officials, including the Supreme Court’s Florida Courts Technology Commission, argued that e-service was part of the original contract and a benefit that was to be provided free to lawyers and other users.

Some authority members and clerks, though, contended that e-service, as subsequently established in Supreme Court Administrative Order 10-2101, was not part of the original contract and was an extra service for which lawyers could pay a fee.

Smith noted that representatives from the authority and the FCTC met and carefully reviewed the portal agreement between the courts and the authority. They agreed that e-service was part of the original agreement, but expenses for the authority board and for educating users of the portal were not covered. Also not included were costs for setting up a website for the authority, to assist in the education efforts.

“Everyone came to an agreement that there were parts that should be funded as originally intended through the interlocal agreement,” Smith said. “And there were those functionalities — the ongoing operations of the actual work of the authority and the education and customer service — that were not.”

Palm Beach County Clerk of Court Sharon Bock, who chairs the authority’s funding subcommittee that worked with the FCTC, told the board, “These are the two areas that we believe that we could partner with the court and possibly even with the [Florida] Bar and go to the state Legislature and . . . attempt to get funding in these areas so that we can progress even further with our efficiencies and the e-filing portal expansion and use.”

Smith said he hoped to have a budget figure for the authority when it meets again January 10.

Authority members said they also want to discuss at that meeting standardization between counties on e-filing. Levi Owens, portal project manager, reminded the group that the criminal pilot program was developing the criminal filing using a standardized document description method.

Authority member Tom Hall, clerk of the Supreme Court, and Karen Rushing, Sarasota clerk of court, said they were concerned with reports that procedures for “simplified” filing might vary from county to county.

However, Miami-Dade Clerk of Court Harvey Ruvin told the authority that standardization may force some counties, particularly larger ones, to change the way they have been doing things and hurt the efficient operations of the courts.

“From the authority perspective, it’s always a struggle between standardization and efficiency,” Smith said. “The goal is still standardization and we will continue to move that way, but to expect that from day one is not realistic. But that shouldn’t diminish everyone’s design and long-term goal to meet standardization.”

Ruvin responded, “I would hope that standardization is not just for standardization’s sake. Efficiency is what we’re all after.”

Authority members agreed to look into a request from the Middle District U.S. Attorney’s Office on access for federal prosecutors into the state court e-filing system. The system as set up is geared toward filing by Florida Bar members and uses lawyers’ Bar number as part of the process. However, federal prosecutors do not have to be Florida Bar members to work in Florida, and occasionally have to file papers in state courts.

Smith said the request will be sent to a subcommittee, adding similar challenges are likely to occur as work on the portal and e-filing continues.

“I do think we’re going to have to find a solution. In the end, we’re going to have a lot more groups come in, and we’re going to have to find out what the methodology is,” he said. “We have to make this work for this system to become more and more effective and efficient over time.”

[Revised: 06-13-2014]