By Gary Blankenship
Most Florida counties are now set up to accept at least some civil case electronic filings, and all the remaining counties have begun the process of joining the statewide e-filing system.
Against the backdrop of the Supreme Court considering the following day oral arguments that included a proposed mandatory deadline requiring e-filing of all court documents, the Florida Courts E-Filing Authority met November 2 to review progress on the Internet portal that is the gateway to the e-filing system.
Aside from hearing progress on the portal, the authority made plans to improve its website and created a new com-mittee to get feedback from court clerks and other users to help smooth the transition to an electronic world.
The meeting also saw clerks — who make up the membership of the authority — reiterate that they will have no choice but to eventually accept only electronic filing, as they can’t afford to maintain both a paper and electronic filing system.
“I think it needs to be articulated many, many, many times about the costs of a dual system,” said Palm Beach County Clerk Sharon Bock, an authority member.
“I’m not absolutely certain the message is getting out there that it is financially impossible for the clerks to maintain two systems for any length of time. Even for six months, it would be almost impossible to do it. We simply don’t have the resources.”
Melvin Cox, of the Florida Association of Court Clerks, is overseeing setting up the portal, including the computer programming and connecting various clerks’ offices. He noted the Florida Courts Technology Commission, with input from the authority, set July 1, 2012, as the deadline for all clerks to be connected to the portal and ready to receive civil cases, and December 31, 2012, as the deadline for all clerks to be ready to accept criminal cases.
(At the oral argument the next day, the FCTC proposed, in response to a request from the court, that e-filing be made mandatory for attorneys filing civil and criminal cases nine months after those respective dates.)
“It doesn’t mean everyone is e-filing,” Cox said of the 2012 dates. “It doesn’t mean that it’s mandatory yet. We are moving toward that, but we’re not there yet.”
Overall, he reported that 41 counties can accept at least some civil e-filings. Some can accept filings in all five civil divisions, some only in one or two. Some are accepting e-filings only for new cases, while some are accepting for both new and existing cases.
Another five counties already have existing e-filing systems that were set up before the Legislature and the Supreme Court began pushing for a unified statewide electronic system, Cox said. Authority staff is working with those counties to transition their filing systems to the statewide system; 21 counties are currently not accepting any e-filings, but all are in the process of hooking into the portal.
“At the next [authority] meeting [tentatively set for mid to late January] for these counties, we’ll come back with a fairly detailed plan for a due date when they’re going to do that,” Cox said. “Most of these counties are well on their way to being on the portal in some capacity.”
A schedule also has been set for adding the appellate courts to the portal, he said.
Aside from connecting counties to the portal, the second part is continually expanding and improving the portal as new users join and problems are discovered and ironed out. Cox said the portal will require $246,000 this year and $204,000 next year, with the FACC Services Group, a branch of the FACC that has been providing start-up funding for the portal, picking up that tab.
“We have to continue to update the portal, add functionality to the portal that’s not there. We have to add functionality for new case types that are not there, specifically criminal filings, which we’re just getting started with,” Cox said. “We’re going to have more programming resources on the portal, and we’re going to be able to meet the expectations of our users.”
That exception includes the special needs of state attorneys and public defenders when criminal cases are added to the e-filing system, he added.
On other matters, the authority board voted 5-2 to allow its website subcommittee to seek competitive bids of around $10,000 to improve the authority’s website, which includes the e-filing portal.
Bock, a subcommittee member, said efforts will be geared toward making the site more user-friendly and intuitive to use.
The authority board also approved the recommendation from Orange County Clerk Lydia Gardner, who chairs the board, to set up a subcommittee to get feedback from clerks and other portal users, as the e-filing system is set up and expands.
She named Clay County Clerk of Court James Jett to head the panel.
“We want to ensure we do it right,” Gardner said. “It is a very complex, difficult, laborious process, and we want to ensure we do it right, and we do it right the first time. Our whole future success is tied up in this. . . .
“It’s really important that communication be available to everyone. It’s really important that every voice be heard. And it’s really important that we come up with the best e-filing system that we can have.”
The authority board got some feedback in person from Broward County Court Clerk Howard Forman. He presented a list of issues he said would need addressing, although he added none were unsolvable. His list included how existing paper files will be combined with electronic filings, including when a new electronic case is merged with a prior paper-filed case; how certified copies will be provided in an electronic world; how filers will be notified when there is a problem with their submission, especially as it leads to a rejection of the filing; how summonses will be handled; and how confidential cases and filings will be protected.