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August 1, 2018
Artificial intelligence is already at work in some clerks’ offices

By Gary Blankenship
Senior Editor



Wally Bishop, Rosie Tobor, Kitt Robbie, and, uh, Speedy are “lights out” for the Palm Beach County Clerk of Courts. “Herbie” is doing the same in Okaloosa County, but on criminal cases instead of civil filings.

The five aren’t real people in Clerk Sharon Bock’s (Palm Beach) or Clerk J.D. Peacock’s (Okaloosa) offices but those who deal with them sometimes speak as if they were. The five are computers, sometimes referred to by Bock and others as robots, who are part of a test program that uses artificial intelligence to handle filed court documents.

Broward County hasn’t named its computers, but it’s handling redactions in court filings automatically.

“This is the future and it’s also the future of the Bar,” Bock said. “I’m reading a book called ‘Life 3.0’ by Max Tegmark and the premise is that the policy around artificial intelligence is going to need to be developed, and I would submit that the Bar and the lawyers need to be absolutely in the forefront of this.

“What we’re talking about here is not only a change in the way lawyers operate their offices or the way lawyers operate their business. What we’re talking about is an expectation of service by the public.”

What Bock’s program does is train the four “robots” to read the filed documents, retrieve the necessary information to fill out the necessary docket sheets and get the document into the case management system, and finally put it on the docket where it will be publicly available.

It’s an ongoing process. The office began with simple filings — notices of hearings, notices of cancellations, and requests for copies — which have a fairly high volume but low risk if a mistake is made. Now service returns, notices of taking depositions, subpoena lists, and some other functions have been added.

Peacock is working on criminal intake. Arrests generated by the Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office are routed through “Herbie” who “puts it in our case initiation system.”

The Broward County system, according to Joan Napole, the IT project management office manager, scans incoming documents for sensitive information and removes it. About 20 percent of the filings are automatically docketed.

Cindy Guerra, chief of court operations and official records for Bock, participated in a technology CLE at the Bar’s June Annual Convention and said then about 3 percent of the office’s court filings were being handled by artificial intelligence. A month later, that number had risen to about 12 percent.

“The computer is actually smart enough to know if it sees something that doesn’t fit the training we’ve provided, it sends it to a special queue for a human to look at,” said Michelle Nelson, the director of official records and court operations. That leads to more “training” for the robots so the next time they see a similar document, they automatically handle it.

Consequently, more and more, Wally, Rosie, Kitt, and Speedy are able to go “lights out,” that is accept a document, read it, get it in the case management system, and docket it — without any human supervision or intervention.

Human Fingers
Peacock said sometimes human “fingers” are still needed on some cases, but even then processing is still faster and more accurate. His office began working on the program last summer, began handling some cases in the fall and really went operational earlier this year with the Sheriff’s Office. While still polishing the process, he’s looking to expand it to local police departments.

Napole says he does not consider the Broward system as a true AI system yet, but it’s getting there.

It does scan and redact sensitive information from all incoming documents. Beyond that, “We have identified a number of document types that we know require minimal or no modification from our side and we’ve reprogrammed our system to handle those automatically without human intervention,” he said.

That means they are docketed 24/7 and publicly available within minutes.

It’s not certain how fast the AI will progress.

Henry Sal is president of Computer Systems Innovations, which has provided computer support for Bock’s office for more than 20 years and is the vendor for the AI project. He and Bock consider the Palm Beach County project a beta test.

“We had to use the docket codes where there was low risk in the technology,” Bock said. “Once we were secure with the low-risk docket codes, we began adding other docket codes.”

Geurra said in a year, perhaps 35 percent of the office’s court filings will be handled through the AI system.

Napole said the next step in Broward, which is also working with CSI, will be to have the computers learn directly as human clerks process filings.

“There are a number of activities that the clerks have to do as part of the acceptance of the filing so it goes to the case management system. The artificial intelligence part of it will learn what it has to do by what the clerks in the system do so in time . . . the system will be able to emulate what the humans do,” he said. “The more time passes, the more the software will be able to correctly identify what to do and update the system.”

Although the system can’t automatically handle emergency filings, Napole said it can flag them for immediate attention by the human clerks.

Accuracy
Bock and Peacock rattle off a series of benefits offered by AI:

• Right now AI and human reviewers start with about the same accuracy rate in reviewing filings. But when the machine makes a mistake, it can be taught about the error and won’t make it again. Eventually, the error rate should approach zero, she said. Peacock said his system is more accurate than a purely human operation.

• Standards for electronic filing call for clerks to have docketed a document submitted through the statewide electronic e-filing portal within three days. According to portal statistics, the statewide average right now is about one day, although that varies around the state. With AI, docketing can be completed within minutes, Bock, Napole, and Peacock said.

• Portal statistics also show that while most submissions come during working hours, lawyers file electronically 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. Now, documents filed on weekends, holidays, and non-workday hours cool their digital heels in electronic holding cells until humans can review and docket them. AI will handle filings as they come in, whenever they come in.

• One of the trickiest parts of electronic filing for clerks and lawyers is identifying confidential information that must be redacted from filings before they are made available to the public. As shown in Broward, AI is already addressing this issue.

• Third-party vendors are now offering to handle electronic filing for lawyers, but Bock said an artificially intelligent future portal may make filing a snap. Rather than navigating pull down menus, filling in spaces, and clicking on boxes, filing may be as simple as logging in and dragging the relevant document from a folder on the lawyer’s computer to the portal. The intelligent system will glean the case number, type of filing, and other necessary information and do the rest.

• One of the biggest bugaboos of switching from a paper to an electronic-based court system is county-to-county variations. With 67 clerks of courts, it’s inevitable that similar documents will have slightly different descriptions and docketing codes. Getting all of that standardized has been expected to be one of the biggest headaches facing an electronic court system. But AI can accommodate all of those local variations and idiosyncrasies, neatly sidestepping the problem.

Lessons Learned
Peacock, Napole, and Bock pointed out another advantage: What one clerk develops and works on can be readily transferred to another. When Bock is ready to begin using AI on criminal filings, she’ll be able to use most of the work done by Peacock. Likewise, Peacock will be able to rely on Bock’s lessons in civil filings.

“The lessons we’re learning, the next clerk doesn’t have to learn on criminal,” Peacock said. “We’ve already learned.”

It’s also something lawyers and others expect in an increasingly digital world. Peacock compared it to early days in the industrial revolution.

“It’s like when automobiles went from being handmade to being made on a production line,” he said. “We’re providing that kind of automation to documents.”

Sal had another analogy.

“When I go online and order pizza, I expect things to happen pretty rapidly,” he said. “If I’m an attorney and I press submit, I expect my filing to be in the case in a matter of seconds, not hours.”

Why is this the right time for AI?

Sal said the current iteration is the fifth generation of artificial intelligence and the first that can approach human capabilities. He said the University of Stanford developed a test to measure how humans and computers do in assimilating complex information and managing it correctly. The highest human score on the scale was 72, never beaten by a computer.

Until earlier this year, when a Chinese company developed a computer that scored a point higher. The next day, a Microsoft machine beat that by half a point.

So the technology is there.

Money is another reason.

Peacock and Bock said clerks’ budget for court support work have been drastically cut in recent years. AI automation is one way to try to deal with that funding shortfall, although Bock noted savings on human salaries is offset by the need to buy the computers, programming, and hire technical support staff.

Lawyers may have qualms about the lack of human hands involved in processing filings, or as Sal put it, “It’s not the technology, it’s the trust of technology. You give someone the key to a car that drives itself, how quickly do they believe it can drive itself?”

The AI revolution will also reach beyond the way cases are handled and revamp the way law offices are organized and do business. Bock said some offices already use AI to analyze large numbers of documents, and she said document preparation will be done with an eye that its handling after filing will be done by computer.

Sal cited another example: “LexisNexis uses AI to predict case outcome based on the type of case and all of the motions that have been filed. It’s expensive, but a lot of attorneys have signed up for that.”

Oh, yeah. Where did the robot names come from?

Well, Wally is named after the “Wall-E” Disney movie; Rosie was the name of the robot maid on the “Jetsons” cartoon show (Tobor or "robot" spelled backwards); and Kitt is the name of the automated futuristic car on the “Knight Rider” TV series. “The fourth one hasn’t been named yet, but we’ve just been calling it ‘Speedy’ because it’s the fastest of all,” Bock said.

[Revised: 11-09-2018]