Authority board asks the Legislature for $1.1 million to fund a help desk to assist lawyers with e-filing
By Gary Blankenship
Imagine later this spring sending a runner to the court to file some documents in a civil case and the runner comes back and reports the clerk refused the documents, stipulating they must be filed electronically.
Florida lawyers could be facing that scenario in two months as the April 1 deadline for mandatory electronic filing in the state civil trial courts approaches. Those filing in the Supreme Court face an even shorter deadline: e-filing is mandatory there on February 27.
Members of the Florida Courts E-Filing Authority discussed the approaching deadlines at a January 10 meeting and voted to ask Supreme Court Chief Justice Ricky Polston for clarification of the clerks’ authority to reject paper filings after the deadline. Members also discussed whether the April 1 date was absolute or whether there would be some leeway to continue to accept some paper filings for a short period.
In conjunction with the approach of mandatory e-filing, the authority board also voted to ask the Legislature for a nearly $1.1 million appropriation, with the lion’s share of that going to fund up to a 10-person help desk to assist lawyers with e-filing.
The authority oversees the statewide Internet portal through which all e-filing will be done for both trial and appellate courts.
Leon County Court Clerk and authority member Bob Inzer raised the issue of whether attorneys are ready for the requirement that they do all civil case filing through the portal. He cited it as a three-part process: getting the portal ready, getting clerks ready to receive e-filings through the portal, and educating lawyers and getting them ready to e-file.
“We’ve done a lot of training [for lawyers] in Leon County and a lot of promotion and we’re still getting [only] 10 percent of our filings [through the portal]. There’s going to be a lot of pushing at the end,” Inzer said. “I’m worried it’s going to be a train wreck at the end. I don’t think the portal is not ready or that the clerks are not ready. It’s attorneys who are not ready. . . .
“My full expectation is come April 1, most of the filings will come in by paper . . . most of the attorneys will ignore it [the e-filing deadline].”
The authority received a report that, as of the meeting, 58 counties were cleared to receive all types of civil e-filings, and the remaining nine counties expected to be ready prior to the April 1 deadline. But Inzer noted many of those remaining counties are large, and attorneys in those counties won’t have much time to get used to the system before being expected to e-file all their civil paperwork.
Supreme Court Clerk and authority member Tom Hall noted the Supreme Court is handling the approaching e-filing deadline by allowing voluntary filing, which began in January. He also said he thinks generally appellate lawyers are more eager to e-file than trial-level attorneys.
“My instructions are when we get to that February 27 date and someone walks in with paper, I’m telling them I can’t take it and handing them a copy of the [Supreme Court] order [setting the e-filing deadlines],” Hall said.
Palm Beach County Court Clerk and authority member Sharon Bock suggested writing a letter to the chief justice to clarify clerks’ authority to reject paper filings after the deadline.
Board members discussed the idea, including whether they should ask if there should be a 30-, 60-, or 90-day grace period from the deadline. That point raised concerns that filing policies could vary county to county, while the purpose of the e-filing system is to have a uniform statewide process.
The board finally voted to send a letter asking the chief justice if they have the authority to reject paper filings in civil cases after the deadline “subject to good-cause, common-sense exceptions.”
Authority members received information earlier in the meeting on how far they have to go with e-filing. Levi Owens and Melvin Cox, who are overseeing the setting up of the portal, noted for all of 2012, 360,859 filings were made through the portal, the majority of those civil cases. Yet, Supreme Court statistics show that there were 4 million filings in courts overall. So only about 10 percent of the current filings were done electronically, meaning a rapid rise in the number of documents having to be sent through the portal by the April 1 deadline.
Also, almost 21,000 attorneys had registered to do the e-filing. While the Bar has more than 90,000 members, only 50,000 to 60,000 are expected to register, with the rest having practices or employment that doesn’t require regular filings with the court.
Putnam County Court Clerk and authority Chair Tim Smith noted that the Florida Court Clerks & Comptrollers would be having their regional district meetings in the coming weeks, and he directed authority staff to attend and query clerks about any last minute problems they were having.
But he and other authority members warned there are likely to be some glitches even with the most prepared system.
“We know there are going to be issues; there just are. No one should be surprised there are issues,” he said. “But it’s good to set a [deadline] date and work through that.”
Added Hall: “You’re getting 10 percent of your filings and come April 1, you’re getting 100 percent of your [civil] filings. We all know there are going to be big problems, and we’ll deal with them.”
On the budget, authority members looked at requesting funding for items not covered in the original interlocal agreement between the court system and the FCCC that created the authority to oversee the creation and operation of the portal. Under that agreement, the clerks’ association agreed to underwrite the development costs of the portal, but not all expenses were covered.
Bock, chair of the authority’s Funding Subcommittee, said costs for the authority board itself, for educating lawyers, and for providing a help desk for lawyers using the portal were not part of the agreement. Information provided to the board showed that from the last half of 2011 to the first half of 2012, the number of help calls from lawyers grew more than two and half times, and grew that fast again from the first to the second half of 2012. Growth is expected to increase this year with mandatory filing deadlines.The request approved by the authority seeks $59,500 for authority board expenses, $111,303 for training and workshops for lawyers doing e-filing, and $927,528 to fund a help desk service.
The February 27 deadline for Supreme Court electronic filings and April 1 date for civil trial court e-filings are the first of several such deadlines for 2013. The Supreme Court has approved a schedule that calls for an October 1 deadline for all criminal filings. On the appellate level, the Supreme Court will be followed by deadlines of July 22 for the Second District Court of Appeal, September 27 for the Third DCA, October 31 for the Fourth DCA, November 27 for the Fifth DCA, and December 27 for the First DCA.