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July 1, 2013
‘Although the portal is operational, there is more to be done’

By Gary Blankenship
Senior Editor

A few hours after Supreme Court Chief Justice Ricky Polston called on county clerks of court to continue to improve the new court e-filing system, the Florida Courts E-Filing Authority met and discussed its ongoing efforts for improvements.

Chief Justice Poston The authority governing board met June 10 at Saddlebrook in conjunction with the annual convention of the Florida Court Clerks & Comptrollers. Eight of the nine authority members are county court clerks and the ninth member is Supreme Court Clerk Tom Hall.

The authority was created through an interlocal agreement between the state court system and the FCCC, and the FCCC provides staffing for the authority. The work of developing the portal was contracted out to the FCCC, which also underwrote most of the development costs.

E-filing for the Supreme Court and for civil cases in the trial courts became mandatory on April 1, and filing for criminal trial court cases is set to become mandatory on October 1.

Filing for the district courts of appeal will be phased in over the remainder of the year.

Polston told the FCCC that “although the portal is operational, there is more to be done.

“There are four significant items that have or should have everyone’s focus. One is a help desk that will adequately provide assistance for accessibility.

“It is crucial that problems with the portal get addressed in a timely way and lawyers are able to utilize the system in an efficient manner,” he said.

“Second, the lawyers need to be able to see the documents. If they file the documents electronically and there is an electronic record, it is a reasonable expectation for them to see those in an electronic format.

“Third, the portal needs to be a two-way highway, not just one-way, with the courts being able to transmit to parties and each other back through the portal.

“Fourth, there needs to be standard drop-down choices [on portal menus] for filing no matter what court it is,” Polston said. “Uniformity helps.”

The authority is moving to address the help desk issue. Lynn Hoshihara, counsel for the authority, said she is investigating the use of portal fees to hire more help desk personnel. The board agreed to postpone that discussion until its July 18 meeting, but it also approved a 2013-14 budget that allows for spending more than $1.1 million to expand help desk services.

Jennifer Fishback, portal project manager, told the authority board the help desk is running about two weeks behind on responding to calls.

Authority members — and clerks in the audience — had an extensive discussion about standardizing document and case type descriptions on the portal menus set up in each county. Authority Chair Tim Smith, Putnam County clerk of court, noted that was one of the issues raised by Chief Justice Polston.

Authority member Bob Inzer, Leon County clerk of court, said that the authority at its May meeting passed a suggested standard for case type and document menus based on a form used to report case statistics to the Supreme Court. He moved to make that standard mandatory, but agreed to postpone that action until the authority’s July 18 meeting to provide time to disseminate the standards.

He said that clerks and the authority must settle whether a “simple” filing system that requires minimum information from filing attorneys is compatible with the standard system which will have to be used in the larger counties. Also to be determined is how to get all clerks to use the standards recommended by the authority for both case types and documents.

Inzer’s postponed motion would have required clerks to use the standards recommended by the authority in late May and required that be done “sooner rather than later.”

But clerks in the audience said not only have they not all seen the standards, they also have to deal with divergent local administrative orders from local courts that are different from county to county.

“In our circuit, each attorney has to file each exhibit separately,” said Pinellas Clerk of Court Ken Burke, adding that procedures and administrative orders are different between Pinellas and Pasco counties, even though both are in the Sixth Circuit.

He also said it was wrong to focus only on clerks and their readiness for e-filing.

Instead, officials should ensure that judges are ready to handle electronic documents or e-filing for that jurisdiction should be delayed until they are.

“We’re 50 percent of the pie. The other 50 percent [judges] are not obligated to send in a waiver [if they are not ready for e-filing],” Burke said.

Hall, the Supreme Court clerk, told Burke that the Supreme Court’s Florida Courts Technology Commission is looking at how local administrative orders affect e-filing and that the Office of the State Courts Administrator is surveying local courts about the ability of their judges to receive and handle electronic files. The information on judicial readiness should be ready by the authority’s July 18 meeting, he said.

On other matters, the board heard that:

* Portal usage is steadily increasing and more than 45,000 lawyers are now registered to use the portal. Tuesdays usually have the highest filing volume.

* Authority member Sharon Bock, the Palm Beach County clerk of court and chair of the FCCC Pro Se Committee, reports that her committee is looking at an October 1, 2014, tentative date to allow pro se litigants to use the portal to e-file. Several issues must be worked out, including making Supreme Court-approved forms for nonlawyers available online, determining how to register pro se litigants (lawyers must have a Florida Bar number), and how to educate and help pro se filers. She said most pro se filings are expected in eviction, family law, and county court civil cases.

* Late summer is still the target for beginning e-service through the portal.

* The portal is on track to meet the Supreme Court’s October 1 date to take all criminal filings through the portal.

* Several members would be stepping down after their year-long terms:

P. Dewitt Cason, Columbia County clerk, and Bill Kinsaul, Bay County clerk, will be replaced by Tara Green, Clay County clerk, and Alex Alford, Walton County clerk.

The June gathering served as the authority’s annual meeting and Chair Smith said despite some glitches, overall the portal and e-filing system are working well.

“The work that has been accomplished is seen by all . . . to have been extremely successful, and that is due in large part not only to the e-filing board members, but to the elected clerks, and our partners the courts and the Bar committees that have worked with us to identify a path to success,” he said. “The success we have had to date is quite remarkable, and we continue to build on the success we have had.”

[Revised: 02-06-2014]