By Gary Blankenship
What’s the difference between a “Summons Issued,” a “Summons Issued To,” and a “Summons Issued For?” Or a “Proposed Summons to Be Issued by the Clerk” and “Summons (To Be Issued by the Clerk).”
Nothing. But those are various ways the same documents are listed by different counties on the state courts Internet portal, which handles all electronic filing for the court system.
And that can be vexing for attorneys filing documents in several counties if they go looking for “Summons Issued” on a menu of document options in a county that lists it as “Summons Issued For.”
The Florida Courts E-Filing Authority looked at those variations at its September 25 meeting as board members got their first detailed look at what will be required to bring “standardization” to the portal. The goal is to have the same menu options and functionality for lawyers filing documents in Dixie and Jackson counties as for those filing in Miami-Dade and Duval counties.
(Appellate courts, when they are all online, will have common document descriptions.)
Authority Chair Tim Smith, Putnam County clerk of court, noted that the authority would be making no decisions at the meeting and said the standardization effort will take considerable time and effort. In the meantime, he cautioned clerks not to make interim changes, which might have to be undone when a final plan is approved.
“It would be my goal by the next legislative session that we have recommendations across the board on how to approve descriptions of document types,” Smith said. “Some of that may require legislation and some may require Supreme Court orders. What we really ought to do is say, ‘Here’s where we are now; don’t start messing with it too much; just start analyzing . . . so we can start building the right approach to this.’”
Carolyn Weber, a portal senior analyist, and Jennifer Fishback, portal project manager, provided background and data on how the portal got the way it is and information on current portal practices.
Weber noted that, historically, courts in the counties around Florida have had different volumes and types of cases being filed and consequently different ways of managing those cases after they were filed.
Until the electronic filing age, none of that made any difference to lawyers. They took their paper documents to the clerk of the court’s office and dropped them off.
“Counties have always done things differently; the portal exposes those differences,” Weber told the authority board.
Those differences extend to different case management software used by counties as they intake electronic filings. The portal was designed to work with those various case management programs, including their varying document descriptions. With 1.7 million documents filed a month, those differences can be noticed.
Weber said the authority staff has done a great deal of standardization on the portal, including log-in pages, the screen that shows a lawyer what documents he or she has filed, the page for electronic service, and the page for selecting a county to file a case in.
The differences come in options offered by each county. Filers have to select a document group and then, on a submenu, a specific document type. But counties may have several or few document groups, and each submenu may have several or few documents, not to mention different titles for the same document. And the same document may be listed on several submenus, Weber said.
Things weren’t helped, authority board member Bob Inzer noted, because clerks can’t easily see how fellow clerks were setting up their menus.
Aside from the drop down menus, Weber said the page that shows fees paid to clerks also differs from county to county, depending on how that county wants fees to be paid.
Fishback said she’s done some preliminary analysis of e-filing practices to help the authority board.
One finding is that most attorneys do file in more than one county, although she said she doesn’t know yet whether they file statewide or primarily in one region.
Fishback also said she surveyed several clerks’ offices with a simple question: How many filings come in where attorneys selected the wrong document type from the portal? She was surprised by the answers. In some counties it was 5 percent, while others reported error rates that ranged up to 90 percent.
“If it’s 5 percent, it [the current document menus] is working pretty well. If it’s 90 percent, it’s not,” Fishback said.
She also compiled a list of every document code (description) that had been used by any clerk anywhere in the state and then looked at how often each one had been selected. She cautioned that some of the descriptions may have been replaced as clerks refined their portal offerings. But her findings showed that the vast majority of civil document selections had never been selected by filers, and of those that had been chosen, most were picked less than 100 times. (The portal averages around 75,000 documents filed per weekday.)
Among criminal cases, more than 25 percent of the case types had been selected at least once, but, again, less than half have been selected more than 100 times.
Fishback emphasized those were raw figures and could show that most document descriptions aren’t needed or that most lawyers are picking the wrong document type when they file. Authority member Gail Wadsworth, Flagler County clerk of court, said when counties offer only a few options, attorneys get frustrated when they can’t find the specific one they need. She also said many times filers just pick the first document option presented and rely on the clerk to fix the problem.
Authority members discussed the data and standardization efforts, including that the most commonly used document types should appear high on drop-down menus. Fishback and Weber noted that a software update scheduled for October 24 (see story here) will help filers pick the right document by automatically suggesting options when they begin filing in the document type space on the portal. But it will not eliminate the county-to-county description variations.
“Our goal is to do whatever we can to help the filer find stuff easier and pick the right document and you [clerks] not have to redo things,” Fishback said.
Florida’s e-filing program remains one of the few in the country that integrates trial and appellate filing in one system, is tied into the case management systems, and allows for paying fees online. It is perhaps more advanced than any other in the country, and some stats are looking to Florida for guidance in setting up their own e-filing systems. (See story in the September 1 Bar News.)