By Gary Blankenship
Bit by bit Florida consumers, especially those with low incomes, are gaining access to online do-it-yourself forms to help them with simple legal matters.
The Florida Courts Technology Commission at its May 18 meeting in Jacksonville heard three separate reports on DIY programs underway, one for the statewide e-filing portal and two available in Northeast Florida.
FCTC member Mike Smith, trial court technology officer for the Fourth Circuit, said a pilot project there allows people to fill out an online form alleging violation of domestic violence orders. The forms are available online or at computers at the courthouse.
Users create a password, locate the form they need, and are guided by questions to fill out the form, Smith said.
When they are done, they submit the form to the county, but it is not filed, he added. Within 10 days of completing the form, the person is required to visit the courthouse to meet with a court representative.
The person is asked if the form is true and correct, and the representative then electronically signs and notarizes the form, and the filer also uses an electronic signature pad to sign the form. The filer can get a printout if they wish, he said.
While not totally done online, the process provides flexibility to consumers.
“It allows them to come in when they can,” Smith said. “They don’t have to fill the document out all at one sitting; they can do it as they have the time.
“They don’t have to be in the courthouse as long. It creates legible documents. It creates searchable documents,” he added.
The software is similar to that being developed for use on the statewide e-filing portal and streamlines the process. For example, Smith said if one piece of information, such as the filer’s name, is required in several places in the document, it automatically fills in all those places the first time the name is provided.
In response to a question from Supreme Court Justice Ricky Polston, the court’s liaison to the FCTC, Smith said the program does not ask questions of the users and then determine the proper form. Instead, users are provided with a list of five documents and a description of each, and they decide which one meets their situation.
“This is a very small piece of a very big (DIY) pie,” Smith said. “We’re hoping this will build public trust.”
Another piece is the Florida Legal Access Gateway program, developed by the Florida Bar Foundation and the Florida Justice Technology Center under the aegis of the Supreme Court’s Commission on Access to Civil Justice, which is being tested in Clay County and steers users to various legal assistance depending on their needs. That assistance can be a legal aid program, a low-bono panel that provides a quick consultation at $1 per minute, or DIY forms for simple divorces (no children, no assets) or eviction cases.
FCTC member Jim Kowalski, who heads Jacksonville Area Legal Aid, told the commission the gateway has received its first four consumers who are using the DIY forms. He said those four cases will be monitored as they go through the process, including getting feedback from the judges who handle those matters, with an eye to improving the process.
Aside from that, 13th Circuit Judge Scott Stephens reported on an ongoing effort by the Supreme Court’s Judicial Management Council, the Office of the State Courts Administrator, and the Florida Court E-Filing Authority, which oversees the court system’s statewide e-filing portal, to make simplified divorce and family law DIY forms available through the portal.
Like the other two programs, “It’s a TurboTax-type system,” Stephens said. “It asks users a series of questions and then assembles a document for them. It doesn’t make any decisions for them.”
He said the eviction questions have been finished and are ready to be programmed into the portal for a 90-day test. Work is continuing on the dissolution questions, Stephens said.