Preparing the Way for Acceptance of Electronic Document Certification

74_certifiedHistorically, the need for court-certified documents results from the seemingly contradictory need for the court to maintain possession and control of its official documents on the one hand, with the need for others — guardians, trustees, divorcees, and heirs, for instance — to be able to prove the existence and content of the documents to remote third parties, such as schools, banks, title companies, and so on.

For centuries, in the paper-based world, the “user” of the document obtained a copy from the court, while the court retained the original. To enable the user to convince downstream, remote users of its veracity, the copy was “certified” to be a true copy, usually by signature of a court officer together with some form of seal presumed to be solely within the court officer’s power to affix. The theory was that any remote third party would recognize the court’s seal and the court official’s signature and be assured of the document’s validity.

Leaving aside the flimsiness of this outworn fig leaf of security, for courts the process of providing certified copies in this manner is time-consuming and labor- intensive. However, courts can, and usually do, pass on the expense and perhaps even charge a bit more, because the value (indeed, necessity) to the user more than outweighs the cost.

To recap then, the paper-based system of certification is expensive, labor-intensive, often slow, difficult to verify and extremely vulnerable to subversion.

On the plus side, it is often a revenue maker for courts. Moreover, everyone — courts, users and remote third parties — is used to it.

With the advent of Electronic Content Management (ECM), the time, expense and labor can be slashed and the vulnerability to subversion can be eliminated through the implementation of electronic document certification. With tools such as TrueCertify™[1], certification is provided electronically through a secure Web portal. A certified document can be sent by email as a PDF, printed or both. The third party (bank, school, etc.) can review the original document for visual verification, which is considerably more secure than “trusting” an unknown seal and signature.

One aspect that should not be overlooked, though, is that while it is (relatively) straightforward to identify and train people who are “close in” — court staff, attorneys, prosecutors, regular court users, and so on — the further away from the court, the more difficult it becomes. Therefore, the technology needs to be intuitive, and usable by an untrained user, which TrueCertify™ is.

A somewhat unique challenge with implementing electronic certification is the involvement of remote third parties who are relying on the veracity of the certified documents — the schools, banks, etc. E-certification represents a paradigm shift, not just for the courts and its immediate users, but also for those downstream users. In order to assure the success of this transition, early, proactive outreach and education will pay big dividends down the road in getting all stakeholders, near and far, to understand and embrace the change.


[1]A clerk uses the TrueCertify software to create a special version of the target document that includes a unique certification page, while simultaneously uploading an encrypted copy to the portal. The certification page identifies the document and provides an encryption key and a link to the Web portal from which the original document can be visually verified. (The portal can be set up on the customer’s Web site or at www.truecertify.com.) Visit www.truecertify.com for more information.

E-Certification: Paving One More Street on the Road to a Paper-On-Demand Court

I have previously used the analogy of a superhighway with one mile of unpaved, single-lane road to describe the highly disruptive effect of requiring a “wet” signature in an otherwise electronic document- based court. In a White Paper entitled Legal Considerations of E-Signature I expressed my feeling that

“The benefits from this transition {to ECM} are enormous and well documented. One of the greatest benefits is financial savings. However, when the process must be interrupted to print out a hard copy, get a wet signature or raised seal, then re-scan the signed document, the interruption greatly reduces the efficiency, and therefore the financial benefits, from the new system. In addition, of course, it also opens up a large and unnecessary area where mistakes, errors, and security breaches can occur.

This is analogous to having a one-mile stretch of unpaved road in the middle of a superhighway. Everything slows to a crawl; and the potential for problems escalates. For this reason, we refer to the adoption of the use of electronic signatures as ‘Paving the last mile on the road to a Paper-on-Demand court’.”

A number of side-streets still remain (the term Paper-on-Demand is, among other things, an acknowledgement of the reality that there will for some time exist processes and activities for which paper is still the primary vehicle). One of these side-streets is the issuance of certified copies of court documents. Even where effectively all court documents are maintained electronically, when someone requests a certified copy, the court has had no choice but to print and certify a paper copy.

That situation is now changing. Last month, Ottawa County, Michigan paved the certification side-road by implementing TrueCertify™, an E-Certification solution from ImageSoft.

In addition to the cost savings and efficiency gains typical when transitioning court document management functions to ECM, E-Certification provides more robust, timely and convenient authentication for downstream consumers of court documents.

How Does It Work?
A clerk uses the TrueCertify software to create a special version of the target document that includes a unique certification page. The certification page identifies the document and provides an encryption key and a link to a Web portal from which the original document can be visually verified. (The portal can be set up on the customer’s Web site or at www.truecertify.com.)

To ensure that all the pages are present and in the right order during the visual verification process, each page of the TrueCertify document is marked in the bottom margin with special identifying information.

To prevent the indefinite reuse of a TrueCertify document (which protects the Clerk’s office from third-party abuse of the process), a TrueCertify document can be configured to expire within a specific time frame. Moreover, documents cannot be stolen from the TrueCertify portal because all documents are encrypted, and the portal does not contain a copy of the encryption keys.

Here’s the Real Important Part:
A certified document from TrueCertify can be sent instantly via email as a PDF or can be printed and delivered in paper form to a waiting customer.

E-Certification creates a paradigm shift in the way that certification is performed. You’ve really got to see this process in action to fully understand how it works. The good news is, the paradigm shift is towards a much more secure mechanism for ensuring downstream document authentication. After all, using a raised seal as a means of authenticating a document is archaic and ripe for fraud; just ask any Register of Deeds office about the abuses being perpetrated in the housing market.

Certification of documents is yet another process which, after centuries of being necessarily tied to the technology and limitations of paper documents, is long overdue for transformation in the overall transition to ECM.