By Gary Blankenship
Lawyers who have ignored the Supreme Court administrative order to electronically file their court documents could soon find their paper filings rejected.
But if they’ve been reluctant to do electronic filing because they’ve had trouble getting advice, the good news is an expanded help desk for the Internet portal that handles electronic filing for Florida courts likely will be up and running in December, about two months ahead of its initial schedule.
The Florida Courts E-Filing Authority, which manages the portal, addressed those two issues at its November 13 meeting.
Palm Beach County Clerk of Court Sharon Bock and Sarasota County Clerk of Court Karen Rushing, both members of the authority board, raised the issue of lawyers ignoring the administrative order to electronically file documents and continuing to submit paper filings. They said that while most attorneys were doing electronic filings, some were persisting in doing paper filings even when repeatedly told they were supposed to be doing electronic filing.
“I send a letter every time I get paper and it has absolutely no effect,” Rushing said.
Electronic filing in civil cases became mandatory last April 1. On October 1, most counties became able to accept single case filings for criminal cases, and clerks, state attorneys, and public defenders are working on batch filing for criminal cases with the expectation of finishing around February 1.
Despite that progress, “attorneys continue to file paper, no matter what we ask them to do and no matter what the Supreme Court administrative order says on using the portal or electronic filing,” Bock said.
The issue has been simmering since early this year when the authority pondered what to do if attorneys continued with paper filings after the April 1 deadline to begin electronic filings in civil cases.
The authority wrote to Chief Justice Ricky Polston about the issue and he asked the authority for its recommendations. Authority members then decided to wait and see how the filing went.
Now they’re ready to deal with the matter. Clerk members of the authority said some paper filings arrive at their counters and some come in the mail. Rushing said most of hers come from out of county.
Possible solutions include rejecting paper filings, but members noted that could cause problems for lawyers who might miss a filing deadline.
Another suggestion was to scan the paper filing into the electronic court records, but stamp it as being made by paper, which would give the judge in the case the option of sanctioning the filing attorney.
Members also noted that Rule of Judicial Administration 2.520 requires electronic filing, but subsection (f) provides, “No clerk of court shall refuse for filing any document or paper because of noncompliance with this rule. However, upon request of the clerk of court, noncomplying documents shall be resubmitted in accordance with this rule.”
“Ultimately there has to be a rule that clerks can reject paper,” said former board member and retired Supreme Court Clerk Tom Hall, who is now consulting the authority on e-filing issues.
But other members said a rule change could take too long and that it might be better to ask the court directly for an updated administrative order or rule change.
Board members agreed there should be a single cutoff date for both civil and criminal filings when clerks will no longer accept paper filings from lawyers.
The authority ultimately referred the issue to its Rules Committee, which will report at the authority’s December 12 meeting.
On the help desk, the authority got good news from Melvin Cox, director of information technology for the portal. He noted the authority, at a special meeting last month, approved policies and procedures for the expanded help desk with nine full-time positions.
“The goal was for us to be fully operational by February 1. We are very much ahead of schedule,” Cox reported.
Six of the nine positions have been filled, he said, and work is proceeding on filling the other three positions. Office space has been rented and is being set up with furniture and equipment.
“We will be fully staffed and in our new office by the first week of December of this year,” Cox said. “The focus right now is to get our new hires and get them trained.”
The earlier start means by January the board should be getting recommendations based on experience from the new help desk on ways to measure its success and make improvements.
The help desk will serve both attorneys who are filing documents and clerks who receive them, Cox said, and an automatic voice response system is also being considered to handle common, simple problems that filers encounter.
The help desk expansion comes as demand for its services increases. Calls had been declining in the months since mandatory filing in civil cases began, as attorneys became more familiar with the system.
But as criminal e-filing begins, calls now are increasing again, to more than 8,000 in October, compared to just more than 6,000 two months earlier. And for the first time in October, the number of electronic filings made through the portal exceeded one million.
Demands on the help desk will change as electronic filing is extended beyond lawyers. Once criminal e-filing is completed, the authority, along with the Florida Courts Technology Commission, will work on expanding e-filing to nonlawyer users. The expansion includes court reporters, process servers, and law enforcement officers who file charges and reports with the courts, and pro se litigants.