By Gary Blankenship
Lawyers should be prepared to electronically file all their court documents well before the end of 2013, according to a preliminary recommendation from the Florida Courts Technology Committee. Many lawyers could have an earlier deadline for the electronic conversion.
The FCTC met September 26 and 27 in response to an order from the Supreme Court to develop a schedule for clerks to be ready to receive electronic filings and to suggest a date where electronic filing would be required for lawyers.
The Florida Courts E-Filing Authority Board, which oversees the Internet portal, the access to the e-filing system, endorsed the FCTC’s proposed schedule on September 28. The portal board also heard from representatives of the state attorneys and public defenders on special problems they will have adapting to e-filing because of their large caseloads.
The FCTC’s schedule was being circulated to interested parties and a workgroup on the procedural rules necessary for e-filing. It will then be submitted to the Supreme Court as part of Case No. SC11-399, which addresses various procedural rule amendments necessary to implement e-filing.
An oral argument on that case, including the proposed schedule, is scheduled for November 3.
“If the court goes ahead and does [accept the schedule], it’s the next big step toward Florida courts receiving filings electronically and maintaining records electronically and being in a position to distribute them electronically,” said Judge Judith Kreeger, chair of the FCTC. “Obviously the plan was based on the assurances from the clerks, the FACC [Florida Association of Court Clerks], and the portal authority that the clerks would be ready and so would the portal to receive this influx of electronic information.”
“I think it’s clearly the most important decision the Florida Court Technology Commission has ever made,” said Paul Regensdorf, a member of the FCTC, and the Rules of Judicial Administration Committee, who has been active on e-filing and related issues.
“If the Supreme Court picks it up, and I have every reason to think it will, that decision will change the way every lawyer practices law in the state of Florida in the next 20 months.”
He added: “The word needs to get to lawyers that they need to think about how they are changing how they practice law. There’s no lawyer who can’t get ready if they start now.”
Regensdorf said it’s important for lawyers to realize the change means more than mere e-filing. It also means lawyers will have electronic access to court documents for their cases not only from their law offices, but from their homes or anywhere they can get online access.
In a memo to the portal board, Kreeger outlined the proposed schedule. That schedule is premised on assurances by the Florida Association of Court Clerks that all counties will be ready to accept all civil filings no later than July 1, 2012, and all criminal filings no later than December 31, 2012.
“Based upon those dates, in the trial courts, e-filing by attorneys in each division of court in each county shall be mandatory effective no later than nine months from the date the clerk begins accepting e-filings for that division through the statewide e-portal,” Kreeger said in her memo.
“Thus mandatory e-filing would become effective no later than April 1, 2013, for all civil divisions of the trial courts and no later than September 30, 2013, for all criminal divisions of the trial courts.”
The memo adds that appellate court clerks should be ready to accept electronic filings by July 1, 2012, with e-filing becoming mandatory for attorneys by October 1, 2012. It also said nothing would prevent clerks from setting up e-filing in their courts ahead of the deadlines. That in turn could mean earlier mandatory e-filing for lawyers filing cases in those counties.
“If the [circuit] chief judge approves it and the court approves it, yes [filing could begin earlier],” Kreeger said. “This is not to hold anybody back.”
In her memo, Kreeger said, “The process for implementation of mandatory e-filing that is contemplated by these resolutions is for each clerk to prepare for mandatory e-filing in conjunction with the chief judge of that court. Readiness to implement mandatory e-filing includes that judges of that court will be provided with adequate electronic data and processes to discharge their responsibilities for processing the cases assigned to them, and that judges who have administrative responsibilities will be provided with adequate data, processes, and reports to discharge their oversight and reporting responsibilities.”
Aside from the portal board, the proposed schedule was being circulated to other interested groups. The FCTC submitted the proposal to the Florida Supreme Court on October 7.
The plan creates the possibility that mandatory e-filing, depending on the Supreme Court’s final action in SC11-399, could begin in some counties before the final deadlines set in the memo. At the portal board meeting, members were told that clerks in 25 counties already are accepting electronic filings in some or all of the five civil divisions, and two more counties are set to join.
Melvin Cox, who is overseeing the e-filing system for the Florida Association of Court Clerks and the portal board, said every other county is in the process of preparing to accept e-filing. As more counties join, the number of documents filed electronically continues to grow at a monthly rate between 8 and 50 percent.
Cox told the board his staff is set to roll out updated software and improve support services for lawyers and other users. He also said more resources may be needed, including more programmers, to meet the FCTC’s schedule.
The board voted unanimously to endorse the FCTC’s proposed schedule for e-filing.
The portal board also heard from representatives of state attorneys and public defenders on the special problems they face in preparing for mandatory e-filing.
“The volume that we’re going to be putting through the portal is very great . . . and that is going to be an obstacle,” said First Circuit State Attorney Bill Eddins, incoming president of the Florida Prosecuting Attorneys Association. “It’s going to be difficult for us to file these with the same procedures that your private attorneys use. That’s the biggest issue I see and the one that worries me the most.”
Tom Morris, with the Eighth Circuit State Attorney’s Office, has been named to coordinate the e-filing efforts for prosecutors with the portal authority. He noted that state attorneys will be doing initial filings when a defendant is charged, then subsequent filings in the case. The “data elements” that must be captured to allow those cases to be accessed electronically are not the same for initial and subsequent filings, he said.
In addition, many of the documents filed by state attorneys have to be notarized, and electronic filing must be able to deal with that, Morris said. The system must allow access to others, such as sheriffs’ offices, which will, in many cases, file initial charges.
John Tomasino, who handles technical matters for the Second Circuit Public Defender, said public defenders are looking forward to electronic filing, but added that electronic filing for criminal cases still has issues.
One is that nonlawyer parties — such as mental health providers, the Department of Juvenile Justice, and others who file paperwork in criminal cases — need access to be able to have a completely electronic system.
Tomasino also said differences in available technology in various courtrooms throughout the state must be addressed.
Both prosecutor and public defender representatives pledged to work with the portal board to work out the difficulties.
“We’re talking about a huge investment of time, effort, and money, but at the end there will be huge benefits,” said Lydia Gardner, Orange County Clerk of Court and chair of the portal board.
More information on the portal authority and its activities can be found on its website at www.flclerks.com/eFiling_authority.html. The portal for e-filing can be found at www.myflcourtaccess.com.