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Lawyers and judges may now communicate through the portal

Senior Editor Regular News

Lawyers and judges may now communicate through the portal

Senior Editor

Proposed orders may now be exchanged between judges and lawyers through the court system’s statewide electronic filing portal.

However, only two judges are currently accepting and issuing the orders via the portal.

The Florida Courts Technology Commission got an update on the handling of proposed orders and a preview of a faster way of handling large numbers of electronically served documents at its May 6 Tallahassee meeting.

Carolyn Weber, portal projects manager for the Florida Courts E-Filing Authority, explained that judges will be in control of when they are ready to accept and process proposed orders through the portal.

When judges in a county are ready for portal-delivered orders, lawyers, when they log on the portal, will see a “Proposed Order” button on their “My Cases” page, Weber said. They will have the option to send a pleading to the clerk for inclusion in the case file or by hitting the proposed order button submitting a proposal directly to the judge.

Once the lawyer selects the submit proposed order option, Weber said, then he or she identifies the case and that automatically lists the parties, case number, and other relevant information. If the law office has its own “matter” or tracking number, that information also can be added for the firm’s convenience.

The filer then attaches the proposed order, lists the number of pages in the order, and selects the title from a list or adds his or her own title if it is not on the list, Weber said. The next step is to go to the case’s electronic service list and select the parties, besides the judge, who should be served with the proposed order. The lawyer then reviews the submission to make sure everything is correct, including that the correct document has been attached.

“Click on submit and the order is gone and service has been provided. It’s sitting in the judge’s [proposed order] queue, and it takes you to your filing confirmation page where you can go back and either submit another proposed order or you can submit a pleading. It will show you that service has been provided [on the completed proposed order],” Weber said.

On the judge’s side, “When a judge is ready to handle the proposed orders, he or she will gain access to a page through the portal where proposed orders will be listed,” she said. The judge will see a list of orders waiting for action, with a special icon showing orders that have been returned to lawyers for corrections and then resubmitted to the judge. When the judge selects an order from the list, related case information will be shown.

“At the very top [of the case screen] you’ll see a menu, and on the menu bar to the far right-hand side, you have three options with this document as [the program] is written today. You have download, email, and print,” Weber said. “If you click on download, it downloads the document to your Word application; it automatically opens up Word and puts you in the edit mode so you can attach your [electronic] signature or change the document however you need to change it, and then you’ll be able to file it.”

That puts the document in the case file and sends copies of the signed order to the parties.

If the judge has a question, comment, or requested change about an order, he or she can email it to the affected parties. The last option, Weber said, allows the judge to print, manually sign, and scan the order back into the system — a method she agreed with FCTC member Murray Silverstein should be discouraged as the courts rely more on electronic records and less on paperwork.

“In June, we’re going to add a sign-and- file button, which will complete the process,” Webber said.

Weber said there is an instructional document on the portal to help lawyers understand the new proposed order system.

Portal members discussed other potential improvements, such as attaching supporting documents to a proposed order.

“When you log in, there is a document that explains how it is being phased in throughout the state,” she said. “It is being driven by the judges.”

The first two judges using the system are Indian River County Judge David Morgan and 19th Circuit Chief Judge Elizabeth Metzger.

Handling proposed orders has been a concern of the FCTC. Normally all documents submitted through the portal are routed through county clerks of court who put them on dockets and in the proper files. But proposed orders are exchanged directly between judges and lawyers without the involvement of clerks, and it took some reworking of portal software to allow that direct connection, which is expected to save time for both lawyers and judges.

The change for electronic service of documents is being sought by state attorneys and public defenders.

Judge Martin Bidwill, chair of the FCTC Portal Subcommittee, explained the request.

“At a past meeting, the state attorneys and public defenders made a request for the ability to receive their service via web service as opposed to receiving individual emails, thinking that would greatly improve their efficiency in managing all of the documents that they’re receiving,” he said.

The issue is that Rule of Judicial Administration 2.516 requires that electronic service be done using email and by e-service through the court system’s statewide e-filing portal. Aside from the Portal Subcommittee, the matter was also discussed in the joint FCTC/Rules of Judicial Administration Committee Workgroup.

Bidwill said his subcommittee recommended asking the Florida Courts E-filing Authority, which runs the portal, to determine how such a system would work and report back at the FCTC’s August meeting.

Silverstein, who chairs the FCTC/RJAC Workgroup, said the workgroup unanimously adopted a recommendation to ask the Rules of Judicial Administration Committee to amend Rule 2.516 to include web-based service in addition to service by email and e-service through the portal. It was also agreed that the wording of any proposed amendment to the e-service rule, Rule 2.516, should not be limited to the extent other technology advances become available for service, and that detailed specifications regarding e-service be included in the Technology Standards promulgated by the FCTC and approved by the Supreme Court of Florida.

He noted the current rule allows service via email, where an attorney simply emails a document to be served to other parties and attorneys. There is also e-service through the portal, where parties and lawyers receive an email notification from the portal and to which the served document is attached. A web-based service system bypasses any need for email and directly links computers to exchange the served documents.

Eighth Circuit State Attorney Technology Representative Tom Morris described what he sees as advantages, including avoiding spam, malicious, or spoofing emails sent to e-service email accounts; and the elimination of limits on the sizes of documents that are emailed or served through the portal.

“What we’re looking for is if a document comes to our office, our system would automatically talk with the portal, and that document would come down to our system bypassing the use of email for us to be able to get it. It eliminates the limitation on size; it eliminates the problem my email server may not be set up to accept an attachment what the portal is sending out,” Morris said. “I know exactly where this document is coming from, and the source as the two computers start talking to each other directly. With it, we want to get all of the same information that the filer is putting in when they file the document, which will make it very easy for us to process it on the back end and get it into our electronic case management system.”

Silverstein said while the initial web- service system would be aimed at state attorneys and public defenders, it’s likely that large law firms and private vendors would also be interested in using such a system.

(The Florida Court E-Filing Authority is developing that batch filing system for private filers, and the FCTC got an update on that in another part of its meeting.)

“To the extent private law firms and others want to have this added feature, the additional programming and labor involved by the portal. . . if there’s a cost that accompanies it, I would recommend that maybe not today, but maybe at some point there be a charge, and the cost be picked up by the party requesting it,” Silverstein said. “We’re going to have to become financially self-sufficient at some point.”

He noted the Legislature has rejected for two years a $25 million budget request from the Supreme Court for court technology needs. Separately, the portal authority is exploring its ability to charge private batch filing users for the authority’s cost in providing that service.

The FCTC approved Silverstein’s motion to ask the Rules of Judicial Administration Committee to consider amending Rule 2.516 to allow web-based service and perhaps add additional language that would encompass future innovations.

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