It wound up being a quiet decision, with little debate.
Tim Smith, Florida Courts E-Filing Authority chair, asked his board members at their May meeting if they were ready to approve giving pro se parties the ability to register and use the portal that handles electronic filing for the state courts.
Although this issue has been hotly debated by both the authority and the Florida Courts Technology Commission, the authority board gave its unanimous approval with little discussion. The authority also cleared the way to give judges access to the electronic filing system, which allows them to distribute rulings, orders, and other paperwork via the portal.
Jennifer Fishback, portal project manager, showed the board how a pro se filer would register to use the portal. It was, she explained, much like an attorney sign-up. The main difference is that there is no Bar number to link to the filer. However, Fishback noted, that is no different from what happens in the paper world when pro se parties drop off paper documents at courthouses without producing any identification.
Unlike attorneys and other parties providing information to the courts, pro se parties will not be required to perform electronic filing and will retain the option of paper filing.
Smith clarified that the board’s vote to allow pro se filers to “access” the portal is to provide access to register to use an electronic filing system. “It is not anything but using the portal; it is not viewing documents,” he said. Access does not encompass using an under-development “A2J tool,” software that will ask pro se filers a series of questions and then automatically produce a Supreme Court-approved legal form for filing.
Viewing electronic documents by pro se filers, Smith said, will be governed by the Supreme Court’s Administrative Order SC 14-19, which governs the electronic filing process. The March order adopts a matrix to govern how information in court filings will be provided to various parties, judges, court employees, and others, and how confidential information in those files will be protected.
Pro se filers also will have to comply with Rule of Judicial Adminsitration 2.420 which requires certain confidential informaton be identified in filings so clerks can keep that data out of public view.
Fishback told the authority that pro se and judicial access would begin June 20 with the next upgrade to the portal’s software.
Ninth Circuit Judge Lisa Munyon, chair of the Florida Courts Technology Commission, interviewed after the meeting, said judicial use of the portal likely will be phased in, circuit by circuit, after June 20. She said judges will have to register as portal users, just as attorneys do, and then they will be able to file paperwork through the portal. As necessary, the paperwork will automatically be distributed to the parties and go to clerks to be included in the case’s electronic file.
For pro se filers, work is continuing on the A2J system. Authority member and Palm Beach County Clerk Sharon Bock, who chaired an interagency subcommittee on e-filing for pro se parties, said that when the system is ready for use, the forms generated by the A2J forum would only be those forms approved by the Supreme Court.
Bock has noted that a handful of forms are used in the vast majority of pro se filings – primarily tenant eviction, small claims, and family law forms.
The actions taken by the e-filing board to allow pro se registration for portal use and providing access for judges was mirrored by the FCTC at its quarterly mid-May meeting. Having approved access for judges at an earlier meeting this year, the FCTC took it one step further by voting to allow all non-attorney filers — including mental health providers and government agencies — to electronically file without credentials.
Adding pro se filers is regarded as the first step of expanding the portal to nonattorney users. Eventually the portal will allow court-appointed mediators, the Department of Children and Families, the Department of Juvenile Justice, and other agencies that regularly provide documents or information to the courts to submit that information electronically.
“We want to add the other filer types as soon as possible. We want to make sure we do this in a measured way so that everyone can experience success,” Smith said.
(This report was compiled by the Florida Court Clerks & Comptrollers and edited by the Bar News.)