By Gary Blankenship
Except for an expected difficulty in responding to help desk calls, the April 1 start of mandatory electronic filing for civil trial cases saw few hitches.
“From the view that I’ve had, this has been a very successful launch and . . . I think that we will find that shown by the numbers,” said Putnam County Clerk of Court Tim Smith, chair of the Florida Courts E-Filing Authority, which oversees the statewide portal through which e-filing is done.
The authority’s governing board met April 11 to review the start of mandatory e-filing for civil trial courts and the Supreme Court, and to work on future efforts.
That includes mandatory e-filing in criminal cases on October 1. The authority hopes to add automatic electronic document service in August.
Melvin Cox, who oversees the portal development for the authority, reported that on April 1, the portal handled 20,590 filings covering 31,749 documents.
By April, 4, the number of filings rose to 28,553, and hit almost 32,000 filings by April 9, according to the most recent information available for the meeting.
At that pace, April will see more than 500,000 filings totaling almost a million documents, Cox said, or more than for all of 2012 when e-filing was being set up and was voluntary.
Annually, that would add up to 6.75 million civil filings and around 10.9 million documents.
That compares with an expected 5 million filings, but Cox said the system can handle the extra load.
At an earlier meeting, he reported to the authority that the portal can handle a total of 18 to 19 million filings a year, which will include both civil and criminal cases.
“We’re very pleased the portal is handling that kind of volume and is distributing the cases to the counties,” he said.
“Basically, the portal is still operating very well and from a technical standpoint well under full capacity, which we’re very happy with.”
Although the portal is always available for filing, Cox said most filings come during normal weekday working hours, with the highest numbers coming between 3 and 5 p.m. At the busiest times, he said, the portal handled more than 3,500 filings an hour and a few times topped 100 per minute.
Overall, the portal has plenty of memory and operated at around 21 percent of capacity, Cox said.
The biggest problem was with the help desk, which was expected.
Cox noted there are only a limited number of employees for the help desk, with other people assisting as they can. The authority has requested an appropriation from the Legislature, with the bulk of it earmarked to increase the help desk staffing to 10, he said. But, if successful, the money won’t be available until July 1 with the new budget year.
On April 1, Cox said the help desk received 1,084 calls, but was able to close only 361. By April 5, the number of calls declined to 774 and 441 were closed. Overall for the first week, 4,715 calls were received and 2,203 were closed.
“With our current staffing on our service desk, we will continue in the short term to struggle to answer these calls in a timely manner,” Cox said.
“The backlog can be easily solved by adding resources to our service desk. We hope the resources are provided for that.”
In the meantime, callers are referred to the authority’s website, where instruction and help information and videos are posted.
Board members noted many lawyers, when they can’t get assistance from the portal’s help desk, are calling local clerks’ offices or visiting their websites.
Supreme Court Clerk Tom Hall said a common call his office received was from attorneys who had registered with the e-filing system some time ago, then forgot their passwords, and were having trouble using the automatic recovery system to retrieve the password.
April 1 was also the mandatory e-filing deadline for the Supreme Court, and Hall said there were only minor, solvable problems, although the court had slightly fewer filings than expected.
Next up, he added, is the Second District Court of Appeal, which will begin mandatory e-filing in July.
On other business, Cox reported that progress is continuing in preparation for e-filing of criminal cases, with 11 test counties completing their work on receiving criminal cases, including batch filings, and working with state attorney and public defender offices on filing issues.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do on criminal, but we’ve got a good foundation,” he said.
Carolyn Weber, who oversees the e-service implementation for the authority board, said specifications for adding e-service to the portal have been finished and reviewed and sent to a vendor. The new service could be deployed in August, she added.
E-service has been a much discussed addition to e-filing and portal services.
When operational, it will automatically notify lawyers when documents have been filed in their cases and provide a link to those documents.
It’s expected to relieve attorneys of much of the current burden of providing service to parties in their cases.
The authority board also discussed ways of informing filers about filing requirements or procedures that may be unique to a county. Leon County Clerk Bob Inzer chairs a committee looking at those and other issues.
The board approved a motion to ask the Florida Courts Technology Commission to review local administrative orders that affect electronic filing, especially those that could detract from efforts to have standardization and uniformity in e-filing practices.
The FCTC is overseeing the shift of the state courts from paper to electronic records, including e-filing.
Inzer also said his committee will be making a recommendation at the authority’s May meeting about communicating with users regarding e-filing related issues as they come up and solutions are found.
These include dealing with writs and summonses, helping firms set up administrator accounts, and the like.
That communication and education tool will also be needed when other users eventually are added to the portal, such as public agencies, which have to file court documents, and pro se litigants.
Supreme Court Clerk Hall had one suggestion for the communications tool: Let filers know that while e-filing is quick, but it can still take some time before a filing is docketed.
“The thing we’re seeing is people are filing through the portal, and if it’s not docketed within a minute or two, they’re calling and saying, ‘Why isn’t that docketed?’” he said.
“We could put the news out there that, ‘Hey, we don’t docket in a split second.’”
Lawyers seeking information about e-filing can visit the authority’s Frequently Asked Questions page on its website: www.flclerks.com/eFiling_authority.html.
The link is on the upper righthand side in the red bar.
The Authority anticipates these FAQS to be updated each month, as more questions are asked about the portal.
The Florida Bar’s homepage also has an “E-filing resources” button to click that links to information.