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May 15, 2012
Most clerks expect to begin civil e-filing by July

Most Florida county court clerks are expected to meet the July 1 deadline to have the capability to accept electronic filing for all types of civil cases, although a few are likely to need a bit more time.

The Florida Courts E-Filing Authority Board, after hearing that report, voted to provide that information to the Supreme Court, which is considering an amendment to the Rules of Judicial Administration setting mandatory deadlines for clerks and courts to require electronic filing of court documents.

The board, at its April 24 meeting, also discussed ending paper filing as e-filing takes over, set up a committee to look at long-term funding for the portal, and approved a users’ committee to get feedback from those who are e-filing.

You might call it growing pains for the portal, which is the Internet gateway for the e-filing system being set up for Florida’s courts. The authority is in charge of the portal.

Discussed at the meeting was the pending rules case. As part of that, clerks had promised to be ready statewide to accept all civil filings by July 1 and all criminal filings by December 1. The court was asked to consider making e-filing mandatory for attorneys nine months after those dates, although the court asked for more information before it rules.

E-filing began in civil cases in a handful of counties in January 2011 and has steadily expanded. In an update report, the authority was told over half of the state’s 67 counties can now accept e-filing in at least some civil cases and virtually all expect to be able to accept e-filing in all five civil divisions by July 1. A few counties, though, are likely to miss that deadline.

Tom Hall, clerk of the Supreme Court and vice chair of the authority, said it was important to let the court know that information before it issues its opinion on the judicial administration rules.

“If there are counties where e-filing is not going to be available [on July 1], we have an obligation to give that information to the court so they can exempt these counties [if a July 1 deadline is set in the rules],” he said. “We can still say to the court we’re doing an absolutely great job [implementing civil e-filing], but we’re going to miss it by a little bit.”

The board voted to file a notice with the court on the expected filing compliance, when it gets an updated report in May.

Overall, as of the date of the meeting, the portal had 7,836 registered users, and around 9,000 documents and 7,769 cases were being filed per month.

Related to e-filing, authority members also looked at differences in filing requirements from county to county and the current requirement that paper filings be continued for the first 60 days after a clerk begins accepting e-filing.

Karen Rushing, Sarasota clerk of court and authority member, said at the moment clerks are adopting different filing standards when it comes to identifying the filed documents. In some cases, the filers are not required to say which type of document they are filing and the receiving clerk sorts the documents. Other counties require the filer to pick a document type from drop down menus.

She said the goal of the authority should be uniformity in every county so users aren’t confused when filing in different jurisdictions.

Melvin Cox, of the Florida Court Clerks and Comptrollers and who is overseeing the programming, said that could be standardized in future software upgrades for the portal. The authority’s Best Practices Committee, said Leon County Clerk of Court and authority member Bob Inzer, is already working on that.

The board adopted Inzer’s motion for the committee to develop a uniform “template” for the portal. Authority Chair Lydia Gardner, clerk of the court for Orange County, also directed the committee to look at how the document description issue should be handled.

In paper filing, the clerks said it will be difficult to maintain paper files when e-filing becomes the preferred filing method. Current rules require that initial e-filing be backed up with paper files for 60 days until the electronic system is proved. But clerks said with budget cuts this year, it’s hard for them to maintain a paper and electronic system.

They also noted there will be challenges in transitioning to e-filing because older cases were started as paper files and will have to be scanned. Other issues include that pro se litigants will continue to file by paper and the clerks must find ways to make the electronic files available to the public.

On the budget, the board voted to create a subcommittee to look at permanent funding for the authority and the portal. The initial financing of the portal has been underwritten by the clerks association. But Rushing said the Florida court clerks and comptrollers has been hurt by the cutbacks for all clerks and may have to look at alternative funding sources. Last year, the association provided $1.1 million to get the portal started and this year it so far has kicked in $660,000. It has also contributed staff support for the authority. At the moment, the authority has no funding source of its own.

[Revised: 10-14-2013]