One of the sensitive parts of the Florida courts’ new electronic filing system will be getting some beefing up following an October 28 vote by the Florida Court E-Filing Authority.
The authority board unanimously adopted policies to guide the funding and staffing of a help desk for the Internet portal through which electronic filing is done.
The approval sets a February 1 deadline for getting all new help desk staff on board and the services up and running. Complaints about long delays in receiving responses to inquiries for help have plagued the portal since the start of mandatory filing for civil cases April 1. The authority and court clerks are in the midst of implementing mandatory filing for criminal cases, which is expected to be largely completed by February 1.
The change will expand the existing assistance staff (an equivalent to two full-time positions) who work on other online systems to a fully staffed help desk of nine. At its regular monthly meeting on October 10, authority members heard that help desk inquiries are totaling about 300 per day.
“This is an opportunity for us to build a very robust and useful help desk component. We’ve been asked to do that,” said Putnam County Clerk of Court and authority Chair Tim Smith. “We have to be flexible; we have to be prepared to modify; we have to be prepared to change standards to give the best service we can on this component of access to the courts though the portal.”
The preliminary draft of the policies required a report to the authority and the Florida Court Clerks & Comptrollers every 90 days on how the help desk is operating, but the authority members changed that time frame to every 30 days. Members said the types of questions fielded by the help desk will likely change as more criminal filings are made through the portal, and then change again as other filers, including pro se users, gain access.
(The Supreme Court’s Florida Courts Technology Commission voted that once filing on criminal cases for attorneys, currently under way, is complete, that the next group to have access to electronic filing through the portal should be pro se litigants.)
Former Supreme Court Clerk and authority member Tom Hall said he expects inquiries from attorneys to dramatically fall off after the authority finishes another of its ongoing projects, bringing uniformity to the online filing menus offered by counties. Each county clerk designed the filing protocol for his or her county. A few use a simple filing process that requires the filing attorney to do little more than attach the document to be filed, while others have more complex procedures that offer more choices and help the receiving clerk direct the document electronically to the correct division and case.
That means when attorneys file in more than one county, they typically find different choices and options on pull-down menus and even differences on what pull-down menus are offered.
The authority and court clerks, at the behest of Supreme Court Chief Justice Ricky Polston, are working on a uniform procedure so attorneys will have the same options regardless of the county they file in.
“A large part of this, in terms of answering those [help desk] questions, will be resolved when we get to the adoption of standardized drop-downs,” Hall said. “And I think many, many questions will go away once that’s occurred.”
Smith noted that pro se users will present a challenge in that the help desk will be limited to providing technical assistance and not substantive legal advice.
“I can see happening, as we move forward, we will get the same questions the court clerks get [from pro se parties]: ‘Tell me what document to file and what to put on it.’ And that’s outside the scope of our responsibility,” he said.