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September 1, 2013
Some counties unable to meet criminal e-filing deadline

By Gary Blankenship
Senior Editor

Mandatory electronic filing for criminal cases in Florida courts, set to begin October 1, will likely be delayed in many areas of the state.

The Florida Courts E-Filing Authority Board, which manages the statewide Internet portal through which e-filing is done, heard reports at its August 15 meeting that several counties are unlikely to be ready by October 1 to handle all criminal filings.

That came days after the Florida Prosecuting Attorneys Association, which represents Florida’s 20 state attorneys, sent a letter to Chief Justice Ricky Polston asking that the October 1 date for mandatory criminal filing be pushed back. (See story to the right.)

Tom Hall Authority member and Supreme Court Clerk Tom Hall said he had discussed the upcoming deadline with Polston, and the chief justice has no problem issuing administrative orders extending the October 1 deadline as long as counties requesting the extension are working hard on implementing criminal e-filing.

The court last year set the deadline in an order that also set last April 1 as the deadline for electronic filing for civil cases in the trial courts and for the Supreme Court.

Hall said the Office of the State Courts Administrator surveyed local courts to see where they are on handling criminal e-filings.

“I think we could be in a position to candidly say some counties are not going to be ready, either the courts are not ready or the clerks are not ready,” he said.

Jennifer Fishback, the e-portal project manager, explained to the board the complexities that are leading to delays. The problem, she said, is not the portal itself, which has plenty of capacity to handle criminal filings.

Instead, it’s a combination of the many steps of testing and review that have to be accomplished combined with the different software used by clerks to receive cases, courts to manage the cases, and state attorneys and public defenders to file cases. That includes the ability for state attorneys and public defenders to batch file cases.

Overall, Fishback said there are 36 unique software combinations that can be used by those local entities. Each one has to be tested and verified. And each is dependent on the other. For example, she said, tests on a clerk’s ability to receive filings will not be completed before a clerk has case management software to receive and distribute the cases, as several are in the process of installing new case maintenance software. That would then allow judges to work with the electronic documents, if the court has the electronic viewer system in place to do so.

“Many are in the beginning stages of testing those unique combinations,” she said. “We have some that are successful and some that are not. . . . These folks are on the ball and they’re working hard, but it’s a lot to work through.”
Authority members discussed the issue and agreed to work with other players to assemble information on the readiness of the various public defenders, state attorneys, clerks, and counties. In order to issue timely administrative orders for various counties to delay mandatory criminal filing, Hall said that Polston would need information about readiness around the time the authority holds its next meeting on September 16.

“If we have to put some of the counties back because they are not ready, we can do that. But if there are some that are ready, we can do that,” he said. “He [Polston] just wants to feel comfortable that if there is an extension, it is not a license to not work on it.”

Authority Chair Tim Smith, Putnam clerk of court, said authority members should be ready for additional meetings to address the issue and added there should be no stigma associated with seeking a delay.

“The issue is that no one wants to be perceived as an impediment to this happening,” he said. “If we can move together as partners in any delay, then I think it makes it much more acceptable for everybody concerned that they’re not being singled out.”

Authority members also discussed several issues related to implementing e-filing, including:

* Whether sworn charging documents in criminal cases would have to be filed by paper or could be electronically filed. The authority approved a motion from authority member Karen Rushing, Sarasota clerk of court, to create a rules committee to look at that and related issues.

* Continued discussion on having a standardized e-filing process for each county for civil cases (see story in the August 15 Bar News). Each county designed its own e-filing protocol through the website, with a handful opting for a bare-bones “simple” e-filing system that required minimal information from lawyers but more work from recipient clerks in sorting where the documents have to go. Most counties opted for a form of “full” e-filing that requires more information from filing attorneys but less work from the receiving clerks, although the exact menus and options vary from county to county. The authority is expected to have a special workshop meeting to review that issue. Hall said that Chief Justice Polston also expressed an opinion on that subject.

“He wants uniformity and consistency so it’s the same in every county; he wants to make it easy for attorneys so we get acceptance from attorneys,” Hall said.

“He does not favor simple e-filing, and if the board adopts simple e-filing, he would oppose it. He wants a middle ground; not simple e-filing, but not something so complicated that lawyers won’t use it.”

Smith observed: “I think we’re going to end up with ‘e-filing light.’ It will allow us to meet as best we can the issues that are presented to the authority from both spectrums. There is a balance somewhere to be found, and we will find that.”

* Heard authority member Sharon Bock, Palm Beach County clerk of court, discuss budget ramifications for clerks on the transition to e-filing. She said under the new budget scheme for clerks approved by the Legislature earlier this year, the Clerks of Court Corporation is working on clerks’ budgets for the upcoming fiscal year. But much depends on the transition to e-filing, Bock said, because if that is delayed and clerks must continue to maintain both an electronic and paper filing system, that “will have a large effect on our budgets.” Authority member Don Barbee, Hernando clerk of court, said those costs are estimated at $2.2 million for civil cases alone.

* Discussed the inability of the initial electronic criminal filing system to have the ability for state attorneys to initiate cases through the portal. Some authority members expressed surprise at that omission but were told by portal staff that was decided some time ago because of the much greater complexity needed to allow criminal case initiation.

* Heard that e-service for civil cases is expected to be up and running through the portal by the end of September. (See story on here.)

* Approved merging of the separate committees of the authority and the Florida Courts Technology Commission that are looking at expanding filing access through the portal to non-attorneys. The FCTC favors first adding entities such as law enforcement, probation officers, mediators, and process servers to the portal, while the authority’s committee has looked at adding pro se litigants.

* Discussed giving judges access to the portal so they can file opinions and orders. Some members noted the judges have used their Bar attorney numbers to register with the portal and file orders, but they said for security reasons there should be a separate procedure for judges.

[Revised: 07-11-2014]