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PDF/A to be the standard for all e-filed documents

Senior Editor Regular News

PDF/A to be the standard for all e-filed documents

Senior Editor

In a move that will eventually have repercussions for lawyers when they electronically file documents with the court system, the Florida Courts Technology Commission has designated the document format known as PDF/A as the way electronic court records should be stored.

PDF/A will allow stored documents to be electronically searched, and viewers will be able to cut and paste from them into new documents. Most clerks of courts now store documents in the TIFF format, which is basically a picture of the document. That format does not allow documents to be searched without using a special program to convert the “pictured” document into text.

The FCTC, at its August 7 meeting, also accepted a second recommendation from its Document Storage Workgroup that when clerks made the change, that only filed documents from that point on be kept in PDF/A. Clerks would not have to convert previously filed documents to the new format. No deadline was set for making the change.

The FCTC oversees technology issues for the courts, including the Supreme Court-mandated change from a paper-based to an electronic court system.

“They approved two things. PDF/A is now the approved format for document submission. It’s something that is really a work in progress. We’re continuing to fine tune that PDF/A requirement,” said Steve Shaw, court technology officer for the 19th Circuit and chair of the FCTC’s Document Storage Workgroup. “The second proposal was that when clerks start storing these incoming PDF documents as PDF/A, it needs to be from that date forward, instead of having to go back and reimage previous court documents.”

Currently, lawyers, when filing through the statewide portal that handles e-filing for the court system, are supposed to file all documents in the Word format or a word searchable version of PDF. Most don’t. Shaw said a sampling of portal filings showed only around 27 percent were complying with that mandate. Most of the noncompliance came from the use of scanners, he said, echoing comments of others involved in the e-filing system.

Lawyers take a document prepared with word processing software and then print it out so it can be manually signed in ink. Then it’s scanned, Shaw said, and even though it may be then converted to a PDF document, it’s not a searchable version of PDF because it’s a picture of a text document.

“That document is not searchable, unless it goes through an OCR [optical character reader] application,” Shaw said, adding even then the conversion may not be 100 percent accurate. “You’re getting nice pages of pictures, but you’re not getting a document that’s searchable.. . . ”

“We’re going to encourage people to go directly from their word processing application to PDF/A and we’re also going to encourage people to stop using scanners, or only use a scanner when they have to,” he said.

Court rules allow lawyers to use electronic signatures on documents, which omits the need to ink signing and the use of scanners for word processing prepared documents, Shaw said, but lawyers are still reluctant to virtually sign submissions.

It will be a while before clerks make the conversion from TIFF to PDF/A for document storage, and in the meantime Shaw said he and others hope lawyers will become educated about how to use the format and its advantages. Besides searchability, that includes allowing internal links in documents so, for example, someone may click on an item in the table of contents of a filing and go to that part of the document.

It’s also easier to cut and paste from PDF/A documents when preparing a new document. It may be difficult or impossible to do that with a picture-based PDF.

Shaw said the latest versions of the Word program can convert to PDF/A, and Adobe, which created the PDF format, also has software for that purpose. He said when PDF/A goes into effect, lawyers may have to upgrade their software to comply.

In the meantime, Shaw said the group will work to refine its recommendation. There are already two variations of PDF/A: PDF/A 1a and PDF/A 1b. The first of those, PDF/A 1a is more geared toward text and word processing uses needed by the court system, he said. It is also largely compliant with the Americans With Disabilities Act.

Shaw also said education for lawyers, as well as governmental agencies involved in filing or keeping court records, will be needed as the change is made to PDF/A. “We have to explain to those producing documents how to begin producing them correctly,” he said.

The workgroup is looking at ways to encourage compliance, including perhaps eventually a notification from the portal when a lawyer files a document that is not compliant with the PDF/A standard.

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