Mandatory e-filing for civil cases starts April 1
By Gary Blankenship
On April 1, Florida lawyers are required to electronically file all documents relating to civil cases. The question of how smooth the transition is to e-filing may depend on how well lawyers are prepared.
The Florida Courts E-Filing Authority Board, at a March 12 meeting, reviewed its plans and preparations for April 1, the date the Supreme Court has set for all civil filings in trial courts to be done electronically.
The filing is done through a statewide Internet portal overseen by the authority.
Among the information presented to the board was that 59 of the state’s 67 counties had completed their technical work and were accepting voluntary filings prior to the April 1 deadline. Plus, the authority was told that the remaining eight counties are approaching readiness, the computers and software for the portal are ready for the expected huge spike in e-filings on April 1, and the Supreme Court has begun accepting voluntary electronic filings, with only minor problems.
Mandatory e-filing also begins for the Supreme Court on April 1.
The authority created a special committee to review “other types of filers and their specific types of documents and processes to see how to best accommodate them as the portal moves forward. Its first task: Look at how to deal with a summons.
Summonses are typically filed with the clerk, who stamps and signs them and then forwards the paperwork to the sheriff for delivery.
“The goal on April 1 is to have no problems,” said Authority Chair Tim Smith, Putnam County Clerk of Court. “The reality is . . . there are issues, but the goal is to be prepared not to have any.
“I think that in the end we tried to anticipate those events coming on April 1, but who can look into the crystal ball and know everything?”
One big unknown is how ready attorneys are. Columbia County Clerk of Court P. Dewitt Cason chairs the authority’s User Forum Committee and reported that 25,000 attorneys had registered with the portal. But he estimated that 60,000 attorneys will need to be registered when the civil filing becomes mandatory — 20 days after the meeting.
Supreme Court Clerk and authority member Tom Hall also was concerned about attorney readiness. He said the Supreme Court began accepting voluntary electronic filings on February 27 and has been receiving 30 or so a day since.
He reported only minor glitches, but noted those filings represented only a fraction of the court’s total caseload. He also added that when one party in a case began e-filing, then other parties tended to make the switch, as well.
“I think we’re finding what people were talking about anecdotally last year. Despite getting the word out to attorneys, they’re still not up to speed as much as I think they need to be by the April 1 date. . . .
“There are a lot of attorneys on April 1 who are not going to electronically file because they have not gotten the word. The clerks are going to have to deal with that,” Hall said.
Authority member and Palm Beach County Clerk of Court Sharon Bock said she’s concerned lawyers don’t understand how the e-filing system works.
“I’m getting a tremendous amount of feedback from the attorneys, and there is a tremendous amount of confusion; they do not understand the difference between e-filing, e-service, and e-summons,” she said. “I think that’s what’s stopping a lot of attorneys, plus they did not think April 1 is going to be a deadline.”
The portal will initially handle e-filing only, although it is expected to handle e-service later this year. Summons will be addressed by the new committee.
Levi Owens, the portal project manager, said the several educational videos and training materials have been added to the authority’s website since its February meeting, and more are expected.
He also updated the authority on county readiness. He said all eight counties that had not completed preparations expected to be ready to accept e-filings by the April 1 deadline, although some would not fully be ready until that day.
Taylor County was projected to be finished about the time the authority was meeting, and Seminole County was expected to be finished by March 25. (Seminole already accepts e-filings in existing cases but not filings to initiate new cases.)
The remaining counties — Hillsborough, Miami-Dade, Osceola, Pasco, Pinellas, and Sumter — were expected to take until April 1 to be completely ready, although some were already accepting filings in certain divisions or in existing cases, Owens said.
Melvin Cox, who is overseeing the portal development, provided a technology update. He noted that only about 15 percent of the expected volume was being filed, but that the portal was designed to handle the expected capacity, and can be easily expanded as the court system and its needs grow.
The portal is designed to be available around the clock, except for brief maintenance periods. Even allowing for that maintenance, the portal should be available more than 99 percent of the time, Cox said.
The system can handle 9,425 filings per hour, or around 18-to-19-million filings per year.
“If we see this capacity goes up over a threshold, we can come back to the board and add resources to the portal,” he said.
For all the preparation, authority members acknowledged there are likely to be surprises.
Smith brought one to the attention of the board: summonses.
He noted current rules require the filer to provide paper summonses, which are stamped and signed by the clerk and then sent to the sheriff for delivery. In some cases, he noted, a summons could be 100 pages and with a copy needed to be delivered to five different parties. But with e-filing, clerks are no longer set up to receive the paper copies.
The authority ultimately voted to create a committee to look at this and other case-related processes and recommend uniform solutions to clerks across the state. The solutions will be posted on the authority’s website, and likely on The Florida Bar’s website as well.
The authority also heard Owens report on e-service. He said work is proceeding at providing automatic service as part of e-filing and could be implemented by late summer.
In addition, Owens told the board that 11 pilot counties are proceeding with testing for criminal filings, which must be done electronically by October 1.
He said state attorneys and public defenders in those counties will soon begin filing batches of cases, necessary because of the caseloads of both agencies.