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August 15, 2013

Clerks working on uniform online e-filing appearance

(Editor's Note Update: On Monday, August 19, the Florida Courts E-Filing Portal will have a new look. Filers will first go to a new homepage that provides a wealth of information about the portal, the Florida Courts E-Filing Authority, FAQS, Training information, links to the Twitter feed and other sites. From the new homepage, a filer can navigate to the sign-on page where one can register or sign on to the Florida Courts E-Filing Portal. The portal log-in is the same as before, but once the filer logs on, a map is shown so the filer can select the county, or appellate court, in which he or she needs to file. There is still access to My Trial Court Filings or My Appellate Court Filings at the top of the page, right-hand side, if the filer is in need of viewing filing status rather than filing a document. For a preview, please click on this highlighted link to see the updates.

By Gary Blankenship
Senior Editor

Florida’s county clerks of court say they should have a uniform online appearance for their electronic court filing through the court system’s statewide e-filing portal, but exactly what that appearance should look like remains to be seen.

The Florida Courts E-Filing Authority Board, which manages the e-filing portal, has been grappling with how to standardize the menus and options presented to lawyers when they electronically file. A common complaint from lawyers since civil e-filing became mandatory for the trial courts on April 1 is that procedures and menus vary from county to county, making it difficult for practitioners who routinely file documents in more than one jurisdiction.

Bob Inzer The authority board, at its July 18 meeting, approved a motion from authority member and Leon County Clerk of Court Bob Inzer that there should be uniformity among the counties at some point.

“I haven’t heard anyone speak against standardizing. What I have heard is: ‘What should we standardize on?’” he said. “We should agree that a selection made in any county should be the same. If you e-file, no matter what county you go to, it should look the same.”

Although authority members approved Inzer’s motion, they also said it’s too early to decide what those standards should be.

It was discussed that portal users have a variety of choices, for the most part, to best identify the type of document they are filing. The selection menus are more complex in some counties, creating frustration on the part of those practitioners who file in various counties across the state.

Most counties use “full” e-filing, which requires filing attorneys to provide much more information, such as selecting the division in which the case should be filed: circuit civil, probate, family, etc., along with document type and sub-type. Fees also are determined and collected with the filing when required by law. However, each clerk has designed the process for his or her county, and consequently there is a great variation in menus, drop-down submenus, and procedures. For example, one county may require that exhibits be filed as one document, while another may require that exhibits be filed as individual documents. (Some of the differences are from local court administrative orders.)

For clerks, because much of the sorting of the filings is done when the attorney fills out information, full e-filing may work better with their case management systems.

In a small number of counties, the filer only needs to select the most generic document types, fill out party information, attach the document, and submit it. Referred to as “simple” e-filing, those clerks say it works best with their workflow and staffing constraints.

Authority member and Sarasota Clerk of Court Karen Rushing noted if attorneys are confronted with the simple filing in one county and the more complex standard filing in another county, they might be both confused and critical of the more involved process.

Inzer said having a standard system for all counties would reduce the errors by attorneys, adding he uses a process recommended by the authority and has a very low error rate.

Members of the audience from clerks’ offices noted that making the choices more succinct, with shorter drop-down lists to choose from, might be a solution that meets the needs of both filers and the clerks’ offices.

Authority members agreed to have a workshop meeting, on an as yet undecided date, to review the e-filing process used by each county to get a better understanding on how to standardize e-filing.

On a related matter, authority members received an update on mandatory e-filing in criminal cases, which begins October 1.

Jennifer Fishback, portal project manager, said most counties are well along on coding for standard criminal document descriptions.

Asked if that meant all counties would have identical menus for criminal filing, Fishback said Miami-Dade and Manatee counties are not planning to use the standard codes.

That decision would lead to a different appearance, but she said the portal could still handle that distinction. She noted that Manatee is the only county in the multi-county 12th Circuit that would not be using the standard codes.

Because Hillsborough County is installing a new case management system, she said, an extension of the October 1 deadline will likely be needed.

“We need to emphasize to the counties that they should be diligently moving to criminal filing,” said authority Chair Tim Smith. “If you’re not testing, you should be, and if you’re not having conversations with your state attorneys and public defenders, you should be.”

On other issues:

* The authority heard that having e-service capabilities added to the portal are on schedule to be implemented by late summer.

* Progress is being made on implementing a new case management system and courtroom computers to display case documents, but it’s not certain whether there will be uniformity across the state. Chris Blakeslee, with the Florida Courts Technology Commission, noted that millions appropriated by the Legislature to buy computers to help handle backlogged foreclosure cases will result in purchases of computer terminals, which will then be available for other civil cases. But she said there is no like source to fund such equipment for criminal cases. Authority members said it’s important for courts to have proper viewers and case management software to handle the electronically filed cases. Otherwise, clerks still have to spend considerable time and money printing out case documents for judges, a step which eradicates the savings from e-filing. Blakeslee noted the Florida Courts Technology Commission is surveying the trial courts on their status with case management software and computer availability.

* Optional electronic filing will start for the Second District Court of Appeal in August with mandatory filing beginning October 1. Authority member and Supreme Court Clerk Tom Hall said the remaining DCAs had been expected to phase in e-filing by the end of the year, but a technical issue will likely cause a delay.

* About half of the Bar’s members, or 48,001, had registered for electronic filing by the end of June. Lawyers may be getting more familiar with the process, as calls to the portal’s help desk declined from more than 20,000 in April to just more than 8,000 in June. Fishback said those calls are expected to increase when mandatory filing begins for criminal cases and the Second DCA.

[Revised: 09-02-2014]