By Gary Blankenship
The Florida courts’ incipient electronic filing system will be the most advanced for any large state in the country when it is up and running.
However, “there are little fits and starts as we go along,” according to Supreme Court Clerk Tom Hall. “There are all kinds of little issues that keep popping up.”
Hall was making his comments as a member of the E-Filing Authority Board, which is in charge of the Internet portal through which all filing will be done for the state court system. And authority members didn’t have long to wait at their June 12 meeting before one of those “little issues” popped up.
Palm Beach County Clerk of Court Sharon Bock, another member of the authority, said her office was ready to accept e-filings for all five civil divisions as of July 1, which is the goal set collectively by the state’s elected court clerks. But the problem, she said, is that 15th Circuit Chief Judge Peter Blanc won’t sign a letter requesting an end to the e-filing trial period, where lawyers doing e-filing are also required to file backup paper copies.
Blanc, who was not at the meeting, later said he’s unwilling to give up paper files until judges are sure their electronic case management system can handle the load.
“It appears that the courts want time to make sure they are comfortable with the electronic documents,” Bock said. “Their schedule is not meshing with our schedule.” She added that other clerks have told her they’re having similar difficulties.
The problem, she said, is she wants to have an entirely electronic court records system. Retaining paper copies will mean keeping, for a while, dual, expensive paper and electronic systems. And the paper records will entail about $30,000 a month in printing costs, something that clerks — who have had a 7 percent budget cut this year — cannot afford, Bock said.
Hall noted that e-filing is only one component of the conversion to a completely electronic, paperless court system, which is the ultimate goal. The Florida Courts Technology Commission, which is in charge of the transition, is aware that judges need the ability to manage electronic documents as part of that system.
“That issue is discussed extensively at almost every [FCTC] meeting because there are judges out there who are saying. ‘It’s one thing for the clerks to have electronic records; it’s something else to have a system that I can electronically run in court,’” Hall said. “The FCTC is quite clear that you can’t do away with the paper until you have that other system in place.”
But he also said that problems or delays with the case management system should not be used as excuses to hold back e-filing.
The current e-filing guidelines call for a 90-day test in each county where selected attorneys both e-file and submit paper copies. If that goes successfully, the clerk can petition to abolish the requirement for the backup paper copies, but the circuit chief judge also must agree to waive the paper copies.
Hall said the rules didn’t contemplate what might happen if the clerk wanted to end the backup paper filings but the chief judge didn’t.
Bock said there is an electronic system in place for the judges in her county to work with e-filed documents.
“We have a lot of judges who want to do this,” she said. “We just can’t seem to come to a meeting of the minds. . . . There has to be some kind of agreement that the electronic document is the official document. The chief judge has to agree to that before you go to the next step.”
Bock said she won’t switch to complete electronic filing until there is an agreement “because we do not have the money to operate a dual system.”
Blanc, interviewed after the meeting, disagreed that there is a satisfactory electronic system for judges, saying it hasn’t been sufficiently tested. He noted when the county’s traffic courts went to an electronic system, there were problems that slowed down the handling of cases.
“Before we give up the paper files, we need to know the electronic system will work,” he said. “If the clerk feels ready to go to e-filing July 1, great, we’re all for that. But . . . we need to make sure the paperless system works for the courts.”
Blanc said he proposed a 12-week phase-in for electronic filings in probate and foreclosures with an evaluation after six weeks, but hadn’t gotten a response from Bock’s office.
Ninth Circuit Judge Lisa Munyon, incoming chair of the FCTC, said Palm Beach County isn’t alone in puzzling through technology challenges to e-filing and electronic courts.
“That is a circuit-by-circuit and sometimes county-by-county issue,” she said. “Judicial technology is funded county-by-county. Different counties have different abilities to see the record. There are some counties where there aren’t even computers on the benches, which is a real issue if you have computer files.
“I think everyone wants to ensure the court record is useable and secure. There’s a lot of work that’s done on the back end that the public and attorney probably don’t realize,” Munyon added. “The commission is aware of these problems, and we’re working through them. They’re not easy problems to solve, and they’re problems that cannot be solved without some funding.”
Florida Bar Board of Governors member Laird Lile serves on the FCTC and sits in on most of the portal authority board meetings. He acknowledged the coordination problems brought by the changes in court technology.
“In order for e-filing to get us where we would like for it to be, all of the attorneys, the clerks, and the judiciary need to be ready and willing to participate,” he said. “I believe that those in the Bar recognize that eventually in order for the attorneys to participate, e-filing will need to be mandatory. Perhaps a similar conclusion will be appropriate for the judiciary, after, of course, adequate training and resources have been provided to the judiciary.”
The discussion of Bock’s difficulties during the portal authority meeting came after a report on the progress toward e-filing.
Levi Owens, who is overseeing counties setting up their e-filing systems, said 50 of the state’s 67 counties will be ready by a July 1 deadline to accept electronic filings in all five civil divisions, and the remainder of the counties are making progress. Under a timetable set by clerks, all counties hope to be ready to accept criminal filings by the end of the year, as well as all civil filings.
At the moment, e-filing is voluntary, although the Supreme Court, in a decision released shortly after the authorities meeting, has made e-filing mandatory by October 1, 2013. (See story on Page 1.)
Hall also reported to the authority that the state’s appellate courts will soon be accepting electronic filings through the portal, including the Supreme Court, which will begin accepting paperwork through the portal on July 1. Part of that process will be an entirely new case management system for the court that is designed to work with e-filing, he added.
Owens said as of the end of May, the amount of paperwork submitted through the portal had tripled since January.
Hall, speaking a few minutes before Bock raised her issue, emphasized the complexity and size of the undertaking for clerks and courts in setting up an electronic filing system where the entire state court system is accessible through a single portal.
“There is no state anywhere near our size that is completely electronic through one system. We are way ahead of the curve,” he said.