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June 15, 2013
Working the bugs out

Florida Courts E-filing Authority addresses uniformity concerns and help desk staffing

By Gary Blankenship
Senior Editor

Two common complaints about the new e-filing system for Florida courts — difficulty in getting through to a statewide help desk and variations in filing procedures between counties — were addressed by the Florida Courts E-Filing Authority Board at its May 23 meeting.

The authority board approved a suggested way for county clerks of court to organize their filing processes so they will be more uniform and discussed a possible way to finance hiring more employees for its help desk.

It also approved a reorganized setup for the portal pages that will allow each clerk to easily post instructions and information about unique or special factors of his or her filing process.

While the revamped website is already effective, board members said it will take a little longer to bring more uniformity between various counties’ filing processes and to get more help for lawyers and their staffs when they call with technical problems.

At one point, authority members were told it takes an average of three days to respond to an inquiry to the portal help desk.

Board member Bob Inzer, Leon County clerk of court, worked with the Best Practices Committee to recommend a more uniform approach for clerks to organize the filing procedures through the portal. He said one county listed two case types for filing and another had more than 80. One county might have 24 subcase types, while another has 46.

There also are differences in style and presentation of filing options, Inzer said.

Some variations, he said, are inevitable for an electronic filing system that serves Miami-Dade County, with about 2.2 million people, and some rural Florida counties with fewer than 10,000 residents.

Differences result from each of the 67 county court clerks basically setting up his or her own procedures for accepting e-filed documents. Because only attorneys can access the portal, Inzer said, clerks, few of whom are attorneys, could not go online to see what other clerks were doing.

“We basically gave each clerk a blank sheet of paper, if you will. There was no recommendation as it relates to process or standards or how to use it. Not only that, we really didn’t give clerks the tools to look at other clerks’ offices to see how they were doing it,” Inzer said. “I know many, many clerks are only aware of how the portal is structured from their perspective, and not others.”

Mark Snyder, representing Provest, a process-serving company, said that company assists attorneys in foreclosure cases. Right now, he said, “there are 67 different ways of filing foreclosures. Some counties require filing four documents, some require 14. Ideally, we like things uniform.”

Joel Rosenthal, representing JJL Process Corp., said his firm dealt primarily with collections and also found great variations in the process for getting summons.

At the urging of Inzer, the authority board approved recommending to clerks that they organize their online filing around a Supreme Court reporting form that is used to collect case information throughout the state. That will give clerks a standard for delineating case types and subtypes, although it won’t lead to an identical filing template for all counties, Inzer said.

“Ideally, one person who knows how to file in one county should be able to do it in another county,” said authority member and Palm Beach County Clerk of Court Sharon Bock. “I don’t think that’s the case right now.”

On the help desk, authority board members discussed how to hire the necessary staff in the wake of the Legislature not granting a $1.1 million budget request for the authority. Most of that money was to expand the help desk. Board members were told responses can take three days for a help-desk call, and that the backlog of calls is growing.

Board members noted that the authority is beginning to see revenue from the fees charged to lawyers when they pay filing fees through the portal. In April, the first full month of mandatory e-filing for civil cases brought the authority $171,000.

The board approved a motion to explore whether that money could legally be used to hire help desk staff and to determine the stability of such a funding source.

Members acknowledged that the standardization and help desk problems need solving. On October 1, filing will become mandatory for criminal cases, and that will be followed at some point by allowing pro se litigants to e-file, which is expected to place a special burden on the help desk.

Bock noted, “When we move into criminal courts, it’s going to be an issue of due process . . . . We cannot put any attorney or anyone in our society at risk because of not understanding how to use the portal.”

Board members said they will revisit the funding and legal issues surrounding the help desk at the authority’s June 10 meeting.

One improvement to be implemented immediately is beefing up a capacity built into the portal. That increase will allow each clerk to post information about e-filing in that county or about e-filing in general.

Inzer noted that the “news and information” feature already exists in the portal, but isn’t widely known of or used by clerks. He worked with portal support staff to give that section a higher profile on e-filing pages and suggested that information be sent to clerks on how to utilize it to help attorneys and their staff when they file. A general news and information service will apply to portal-wide issues.

“We’ve identified topics that a filer may need to know that are specific to your county,” Inzer said, adding the service can reduce calls to the help desk and to clerks.

Inzer and Bock said information and technical assistance will be provided to clerks on using the news and information feature.

The authority board also discussed a wide range of other issues, from maintaining Internet access to the portal to technical problems in filings. Those included:

* Plans to set up a backup service through a second provider have been accelerated and should be in place by September 1, following a widespread failure by an Internet provider on May 7.

* Work is progressing on adding e-service to the portal, with a tentative start date of September 1.

* One of the main errors made by attorneys and their staffs is selecting the wrong county in which to file. That mistake creates problems for both clerks and attorneys. The attorneys must redo the filing in the correct county, because the clerks do not have the ability to switch the documents to the correct county. Clerks, though, are still left with the original filing in their holding queue.

* The portal accepts documents in PDF format and also can accept documents in Word and WordPerfect formats and automatically convert those to PDFs. However, there has been a problem with that conversion process, usually with WordPerfect documents. The converted documents show up as “corrupted” and the filing is consequently rejected. One solution may be to eventually require all filings be in PDF format.

* Some attorneys expect a quick acknowledgement that a document has been filed or a case opened. When it doesn’t come, they refile the paperwork, creating problems for the clerks accepting the work.

* The Authority Board approved creating a Twitter account for the portal as one way to quickly get out information about e-filing. Board members noted Twitter would have been a quick way to inform lawyers about the May 7 service interruption.

* After rapidly spiking with the April 1 start of mandatory e-filing in civil cases, the number of cases and documents electronically submitted through the portal continues to show a steady growth. There were 733,191 filings for all of April, and the first 20 days of May had a 65,000 filing increase over the first 20 days of April. Almost 40,000 lawyers have registered to e-file.

[Revised: 11-11-2014]