Court filings and fees drop dramatically in April
Filings for Florida courts dropped by more than half in the first two weeks of April compared to the same period in March, and filings fees were off even more dramatically as the effects of the COVID-19 crisis spread across the state.
The falloff of filings and related fee revenues are among the pandemic effects being dealt with by clerks of court and the court system, both of which rely on those revenues to help fund their operations.
The Florida Courts E-Filing Authority, which manages the court system’s statewide e-filing portal, got the sobering filing information update at its April 16 meeting. The authority delayed adopting its 2020-21 budget to get a better idea on how the shutdown of government offices and businesses will affect court filings. It also heard that staffers are reaching out to domestic abuse shelters to help victims electronically file for injunctions and protective orders.
“From the 1st of April through the 15th of April, our submissions are about half of our submissions for [the same period in] March. For April we have 349,727, in March we had 730,842,” Portal Program Manager Carolyn Weber reported to the authority board. “Our total filings fees for April … through today is $23,235,000. That same time frame for March was $66,450,000. So, it’s a lot less than it was last month at the same time, about two-thirds less.”
She said the information had been shared with the Office of the State Courts Administrator as well as the Florida Court Clerks & Comptrollers. Court and clerk budgets are heavily dependent on filing fees.
Savannah Sullivan, communications manager for the Florida Court Clerks & Comptrollers, noted not all court related work for the clerks flows through the portal but the filing reductions — and eventual recovery — will have an impact.
“We do anticipate that the reduction in filings will lead to a significant loss of revenue for Fiscal Year 2019-20 court-related budgets. Clerks are still working to quantify the impacts and will work with their partners on potential solutions to the current year budgets,” Sullivan said. “Clerks also anticipate that there will be some significant case backlogs as the courts reopen, which will require. . . hours to work though. Clerks plan to work closely with the Office of the State Courts Administrator to quantify case revenue and expenditure data to provide to the Legislature and Governor’s Office.”
State Court Administrator Lisa Kiel said that Chief Justice Charles Canady and other court officials are monitoring all facets of the pandemic’s consequences on the court system.
“There are complex, intertwined effects for the courts, for state government, and for the economy at large. Branch leadership is thoroughly engaged in monitoring, planning, and acting in response to changing circumstances,” Kiel said. “Protecting and preserving the mission of the courts on behalf of the people who seek justice is foremost in these efforts.”
Kiel said OSCA staff are in contact with clerks and other stakeholders on the various needs they have with the focus of keeping the courts meeting their essential functions and at the same time preparing for when the health crisis passes.
“We are working with experienced staff throughout the branch, legislative and executive counterparts, and justice partners to assess where we are and where things are likely going. Effectively navigating the federal stimulus and the changing landscape of state funding are essential. The judicial branch does not operate in a vacuum and our approach will reflect this reality,” Kiel said.
“Judicial leadership and administrative staff throughout the courts system have already been at work on operational issues related to this unprecedented emergency,” she added. “Florida’s courts have responded effectively to the necessity of continuing all essential functions and many others through alternative and innovative means. Even as those wholly new procedures were being implemented our attention has turned to preparing for a return to full operations and the myriad ways those will need to be different going forward. “
On the e-Filing Authority’s budget, Clay County Clerk of Court and authority Secretary/Treasurer Tara Green said normally the budget would be approved in April, but that because of the pandemic she recommended waiting until June. The new fiscal year starts July 1.
“We have a lot of unknowns with the current environment,” Green said.
Brian Machek, chief financial officer of the Florida Clerks & Comptrollers, which provides staffing support for the authority, said three prospective budgets are under consideration. One projected a typical 4.5% increase in filings and revenues, one projected flat growth based on an initial decline from pandemic effects followed by a spurt as business, civic, and court activities return to normal, and another based on a 15% decline if coronavirus effects linger.
The portal would remain in the black under the first two scenarios but would experience around a $420,000 loss under the latter, he said. In the current fiscal year, the portal is projected to incur expenses of about $7.1 million and generate an $800,0000 surplus. Green reported the authority has about $4.4 million in surplus funds.
“At this time, it is believed that the most likely scenario may be for [filing] volumes to continue to be depressed through June 2020, and then begin to elevate in July 2020,” according to information provided to the authority board. “At some point during the year, it is expected that there will be an increase in case filings when the executive orders and Supreme Court orders [dealing with the pandemic] expire and court activities can resume…. [I]t is not possible to anticipate … when that spike may occur…”
Weber said portal staff is looking to help people as much as possible during the pandemic. That includes contacting domestic violence shelters “so they can assist their clients in filing the domestic violence petitions and injunctions requests electronically through the portal so they don’t need to go down to the courthouse,” she said. There are no filing fee associated with the those cases.
“We’re just trying to help as much as we can and utilize the portal as best as possible during these difficult times.”
On another financial issue, the authority board got a report, but took no immediate action, about establishing reserve funds for its operations.
Green said establishing reserves would help the portal cope with such “global hurricanes” like the effects of COVID-19.
Machek said under consideration is a policy that would set up an operating reserve with enough to operate the portal for three to six months, or $1.5 to $3 million in the current fiscal year, and a development reserve of $2.5 million. The latter would be used “if an [unanticipated] opportunity came up to enhance or improve the portal,” he said. “We thought having a developmental reserve for that would be a good recommendation.”
He noted with the authority’s current $4.4 million of accumulated funds, it is in a good position to establish the reserves.
“The e-filing portal has become such an integral part of how we interact with the court, it would be a mistake on our part not to seek adequate reserves,” said Putnam County Clerk Tim Smith, chair of the authority. “We had an economic crisis back in ’07-08, we’ve had hurricanes since then, and now we have this pandemic. We know we will have times in the future where unforeseen items occur that affect revenues.”