Electronic Court Filing Standards: What, Why, and Where are They Headed?

This is Part 2 of 10 in the eFiling Blog Series, check out Part 1 here.

99_eFilingstandards“This tale grew in the telling…”
J.R.R. Tolkien, in his Forward to the Lord of the Rings trilogy

Tolkien’s statement is nowhere more apt than in discussing electronic court filing (ECF) standards. From a small, informal group of visionaries trying to agree on the definition and format of a handful of court terms in the late 1990’s, ECF standards, now under the auspices of standards organization OASIS, through the OASIS LegalXML Electronic Court Filing TC (Technical Committee), have grown into a full-blown specification that includes data definitions, schema, document specifications, messaging, business rules, and more.

In addition, the ECF standards, after first spawning more “global” justice, government, and universal standards, now elegantly fit within and thus are able to leverage the far more wide-ranging National Information Exchange Model (NIEM) and Global Reference Architecture (GRA) standards. Thus ECF standards not only provide a solid basis for eFiling, they provide the mechanism for broader, smoother, more extensive integration and interaction with the world within which the courts function.

Today, most procurements for eFiling, whether from a vendor or by way of development, require that the system must conform to the OASIS ECF specification, of which the most current version is ECF 4.01.  Recently IJIS, a 503(c)(3) non-profit organization providing data sharing expertise to governmental bodies, has made the IJIS Springboard Certification tools available for eFiling systems, with which courts and developers can test their systems for conformance with the OASIS ECF standard.

Why do ECF standards matter? As Jim Cabral, longtime member and current chair of the LegalXML ECF TC, observes, an E-Filing system must 1) Collect data and documents; 2) Satisfy court rules, and 3) Communicate progress. He goes on to say, “The full benefit of E-Filing is only achievable if the data and documents can be integrated into the court record with little or no intervention…. Integration between E-Filing systems and services requires common technical and functional standards for data and document interoperability….”

Viewing the standards saga as a Lord of the Rings type epic, ECF 1.0 would have been the Hobbit – really a “prequel”. On that scale, ECF 4 is probably the end of Book One – The Fellowship of the Ring. We’ve come a long, long ways. But in many respects, the journey is really only starting. In fact it may be more like Game of Thrones: It just gets more complicated and involved.

That’s because the real challenges lay at the business level. While different courts (and even different parts of the same court) share numerous similarities and commonalities of practice, the differences are still myriad and deep. Moreover, there are an infinite number of ways to implement compliant systems, depending on the types of strengths and features desired. For these reason, the OASIS ECF specification is necessarily general, flexible, and extensible, so that each court can modify and extend it to meet its particular needs, while still remaining compliant.

The down side is that not all the needs of all courts can be fully addressed at once. For instance, while major case types (civil, criminal, dissolution of marriage, etc.) are included, others are not. Likewise, while the specifications exist to electronically serve parties already on a case, original service remains outside the specification’s current scope. Payment processing creates a lot of extra work, so inclusion could yield big benefits. ECF 4.0 provides support for appellate cases; and future releases may extend to non-case related filings and administrative court matters.

The LegalXML TC is currently working on ECF 5.0, which Cabral describes as “evolutionary; not revolutionary”.   5.0 seeks to fill some gaps and add some much-desired functionality.   Specifications for Children, Youth, and Family Services matters will be included. Also, what Cabral calls “Miniature Original Service”, where original service can be made electronically on Registered Agents, is being worked on, as well as Scheduling of an Initial Hearing.

The OASIS ECF standards are open and public. The Committee hopes to have a draft of ECF 5.0 ready for public comment by the Court Technology Conference (CTC) in September, 2015. The Committee invites and seeks ideas, comments, and feedback through their public site and email.

Finally, Cabral solicits the engagement of the court community in proactively addressing the business and policy questions that the standards-setting efforts make manifest. The desire for original eService provides a good example. Even service on Registered Agents through eService will require rule, procedural, and possibly statutory changes. Expect such change proposals to be politically fraught.

The ECF standards journey has been and will continue to be long but essential. Courts will be well advised to watch, adopt, and get involved with adopting and modifying ECF standards now and into the foreseeable (and unforeseeable) future.

Coming up next: Blog 3 of 10: eFiling Blog Series – Funding

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Additional OASIS ECF 4.0 Resources:

7 Steps to Electronic Filing with Electronic Court Filing 4.0

ECF Quick Start (Video)

2 thoughts on “Electronic Court Filing Standards: What, Why, and Where are They Headed?

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