Countdown to e-Courts 2016

I’m looking forward to e-Courts 2016 in a couple of weeks; and not just because it’s in Las Vegas and likely to be sunnier and warmer than the December cold and gray at home. e-Courts and CTC conferences stand well on their own in that they are rich in information, networking and exposure to the latest technological innovations. The e-Courts experience, being court-centric, “lessons learned” as well as future planning makes it all that more relevant.

Beyond all that, for those of us fortunate enough to have attended a number of these conferences over the years, the cumulative “arc”, if you will, of the conferences provides an interesting view of where court technology has been and where it is headed. Each conference has its own special vibe or theme (sometimes more than one); and while there are definite similarities from conference to conference, the differences reflect the advances in the technology and their effects on courts.

118_e-courtsA glance at this year’s agenda provides immediate insight into this year’s theme. All past conferences, of course, have dealt with changing technology. This year, from Gary Marchant’s Keynote Address  through sessions with titles like Embracing the Accelerating Pace of Technology Change and Courts Disrupted, the pattern seems to be identifying and describing not only the technologies, but also discussing how courts can deal with the accelerating rate of change for which technology is a major causal factor. Because, while each new technology in of itself engenders change, the cumulative effect of the myriad of technological, societal, environmental, medical, pedagogical and other tsunami-like changes are altering the very face of the justice system.

One area I hope gets some discussion at and following the conference (while not necessarily under this label) is Complexity Theory. (Several years ago, I wrote a piece for this blog on Complexity Theory, also known as Chaos Theory. The editors mercifully elected not to publish it.) The particular point I made in that piece that should be considered is determining whether, in a very dynamic (that is, rapidly changing) environment, organizations can maneuver more effectively with one large, tightly integrated system, or with multiple smaller, integrated but interchangeable systems. In a broad sense, the answer, of course, is “It Depends.”

I hope there is some discussion of what it depends upon. For one thing, it depends on where the court is coming from. If the court has a tightly integrated system that handles CMS, DMS, work flow, judge’s work bench, public access, web portal, and so on, no doubt there will be real advantages with staying with that model. If, on the other hand, each (or at least many) different functions are handled by separate systems, the answer may be very different. In cases where there is NO current system for certain functions, like Content Management, Workflow, Judges’ Workbench, it’s a serious question whether to try to expand an existing system like a CMS or go with a Best of Breed system that can be elegantly integrated with the existing systems.

The Complexity, or Chaos Theory reference pertains to a characteristic with which we are all familiar but rarely articulate, and for which there is some truly incomprehensible math. Since I am not real sharp with math, here’s an example: If you want to pave an area, are you better off paving it as one section, or as a bunch of smaller sections fitted together (like squares in a sidewalk)? Or, should you have one large single-pane window, or a set of smaller window panes that together form a large viewing area?

While the single area may be easier overall to put in, there are a couple drawbacks. One is that you must be able to do it all at once. Another is that one crack, anywhere, destroys the integrity of the whole thing. Thus, when there is the prospect of variability (like heat changes winter to summer) or instability (like ground tremors) that can damage the window, builders go with the smaller, sectioned design.

I think there’s a real analogy here to the situation courts find themselves in as the gale winds of change blow over them. The Pyramids could withstand a lot of weather. But even they were made of individual building blocks. Yes, we’re all finding new functions we want to migrate onto electronic platforms. everyone should carefully consider not just what works best; but what model will best withstand the certainty of future uncertainty.

Happy Halloween

116_men-in-blackOne of the great motifs of the “Men in Black” movies is the human disguises used by aliens. A perfectly normal looking human turns out to be a sort of robot or exo-skin for some alien inside who is driving the apparatus. The allure of being able to wear a young, buff, fully-coifed humanoid exterior could in fact appeal to me; but that’s another story. For an alien, life in a human-suit draws a lot less attention. It’s like Halloween every day.

How many judges, court managers, court staff, and court records users live most of their lives in a snappy, graphic, touch-screen electronic world, only to have to deal with an ancient (if venerable) Court Management System (CMS) that is monochromatic, text-only, keyboard-driven and is based on codes that only the long-time insiders can decipher? It’s not that the information management function provided by the old CMS isn’t vital. It is. It’s just not very attractive, very accessible, very easy to use, or very extensible by modern standards. Worst of all, it almost certainly doesn’t handle ALL the information management functions; things like document management, E-Commerce, workflow, and so on.

One solution, of course, would be to replace that old CMS with a spiffy new one that has all the new bells and whistles. Frankly, that’s not a bad idea. However, that’s sometimes not practical. Barriers like cost, process change, technical support staff, to name a few, litter the real world of court managers.

Imagine if the old CMS could look like, act like, and (to some extent) change like a much more full-featured, modern system. Sort of like the alien deep inside the “Human” costume.

Integrating a legacy CMS with a full-featured E-Filing solution can provide this type of leverage. Here’s some of how it could work:

The E-Filing System can extract necessary data from the legacy CMS and store a copy in a much faster, much more accessible repository that is updated at regular intervals. Because the updating involves only changes, regular updating itself is fast.

When dealing with users – for viewing, for data entry, for communications – the E-Filing System provides the interface. Of course, incoming and outgoing documents comprise a large part of the changes anyway; so in fact what is happening is that the E-Filing System is updating the legacy CMS, saving redundant data entry while providing a much more elegant interface.

Likewise, users seeking to view court information, whether it be documents, CMS data such as the Case Register or Judgment Docket, things like attorney names and addresses, and so on, all can do so through the interface provided by the E-Filing System.

Much more extended uses, including E-Commerce (where users pay for court information), and secure E-Notification can also run off the E-Filing engine, all the while using back-end information from the CMS and in turn updating the CMS with the relevant transactional data and metadata.

Another major new “face” made possible by an integrated E-Filing System can be a customizable “Judicial View”. The E-Filing System can be configured to provide judges with views and access to exactly the information they need, whether on the bench, in chambers, or on the go. The E-Filing System will collect the variety of information from the disparate back-end systems in which the information resides, such as the court CMS, the Jail Log, the Court Docket, the Document Management System, and so on, and present it the way each judge chooses to have it presented.

Perhaps best of all, when the time comes to actually replace the legacy CMS, the impact on the end users can be considerably lessened. After all, what they will see probably won’t change much – because they will be used to dealing with the E-Filing System’s front end.

So, as everyone dresses up for Halloween, consider whether your old creature might not be a whole lot easier to deal with if it were “wearing” a full-featured E-Filing suit.

Happy Halloween.

Paperless Office Progress Actually Observed

As a kid at the beach, I became aware, at some point, that although the rising tide can and will come in and soak previously dry ground, it’s usually pretty hard to tell exactly when the tide changes and starts receding. In fact, it seemed to me that the tide level just sort of stayed at the same place for quite a while, before there was any discernable retreat.

115_paperless-officeA recent article by Christopher Mims with the catchy title  Why the Paperless Office Is Finally On Its Way caught my eye. Turns out that, no; it hasn’t been just your imagination: The advent of nearly universal “Paperless Offices” (or, as we like to call it, “Paper On Demand”) has been, shall we say, a bit slower in coming than had been predicted forty years ago, when an article in Business Week predicted that “…paper would be on its way out by 1980, and nearly dead by 1990.” In fact, Mims cites reports that indicate the number of pages printed in offices was increasing until 2007.  Now, we have analysis that 2007 was the high water mark.

Now, what’s interesting to me is not that the Paperless Office didn’t arrive on schedule – we all know that. What’s interesting is that it now looks like the tide has actually turned.

According to Mims’ sources, since 2007, office use of paper has declined a steady rate of 1% to 2% a year.  The article goes on point out a number of reasons for the hitherto slow progress away from paper.  Still, it concludes by predicting that the trend away from paper is gaining momentum; although full transition will clearly take some time.

Here are a few of my observations on these findings.

First and foremost, keep in mind that the “1% to 2%” figure is an aggregate. It could mean that every office has reduced its printing that much. Or, it could mean that 1% or 2% of all offices have reduced their printing to zero; and all the rest still print just as much as they always have.

The reality is somewhere in the middle. I think what you’ve got is a relative handful of offices reducing their printing by far more; and most offices, even when they are utilizing electronic documents, still printing as much as or more than they always did.

One excellent illustration of how this situation occurs involves our old “friend”, the process of printing out a paper for a judge to physically sign. Attorneys filing physical documents (which they had to print), which the court then scans into an electronic document management system, again keeps the “print count” elevated. The answer here, of course, is implementation of E-Signature.

Another all too common example is printing out e-filed documents, then scanning them into an existing, non-integrated DMS. Courts have discovered that, among its many other benefits, implementation of a strategic enterprise content management system will eliminate this huge demand for printing to paper.

When we see progress, such as the announcement that, having launched an e-filing pilot initiative in 2011, the Macomb County, Michigan Courts in July, 2016 report processing more pleading filings via their e-filing system than through the U.S. Postal Service, we are seeing how the tide really is starting to turn.

The statistics and trends noted in Mims’ article indicate that the balance has shifted. Furthermore, for lots of reasons (and we have discussed them here – generational, technological, financial), paper usage is not only dropping, but the rate is accelerating. Those who over the past several years have committed to and invested in moving toward “Paper on Demand” are and will continue to realize greater and greater benefits. Those who have yet to embark on the journey will soon find the pressures to do so building to an irresistible level as the receding tide leaves them alone on the beach.

Thinking Digitally

It takes all types to make a world, so perhaps there are people who actually appreciate and/or read the popups that read something like

“By checking this box I acknowledge I have read and agree to the User Agreement…” [consisting of dozens, hundreds, or thousands of virtual pages of indecipherable gobbeldy-gook].

114_thinking-digitallyOf course, in order to consummate the transaction, you have no choice – you HAVE to check the box. Nevertheless, courts routinely hold that users who check the box have thereby bound themselves to the substance of the said gobbeldy-gook.

I bring up this example to pose a question: Is that which binds the user a document; or is it a data point, meta or otherwise?

I don’t raise this question to be churlish or legalistic; but rather to point out an increasing and accelerating trend towards the evolution, if you will, of what were formerly regarded as “documents” into pure “data”. The transition seems to be a continuum. First, paper documents were converted to electronic form and stored, with added meta-data. Rapidly, the meta-data itself became first useful, then essential, and (in some cases) of greater significance and greater accessibility than the content of the document.

The move to “born electronic” documents moves everything further along the continuum. The distinction between “content” and “meta-data” has gotten real blurry, in case you haven’t noticed.

In fact, more and more, “forms” are replacing “documents”. The form’s actual IDENTITY – what it IS-  (A Motion for a Continuance? A Change of Attorney?) has become meta-data. There is no verbiage; only identification of the transaction type and the relationships.

Among the many implications of this evolution – which is either approaching or has hit the elbow of the asymptotic curve – is that “Records Management” in the historical sense no longer has much relevance. Concepts related to paper and physical files provide little guidance and much confusion when applied to data. Just one example: In the world of paper and physical files, no one asks how many places or in how many documents the name of the defendant’s attorney is stored. In the digital world, the name of the defendant’s attorney may not actually appear in any record or data on any of her cases. Instead, there will be pointers to a central file with all the attorneys’ names. What happens to the old case records when the attorney gets married?

I bring this up not because I believe problems to be pervasive or difficult to surmount; but because it sure seems to me that the entire subject requires a way of thinking completely different from the old ways. Someone probably has a better term, for now, I’ll call it “Thinking Digitally”.

Courts that are thinking digitally will be wanting to “data-tize” what used to be files and documents as quickly and deeply as possible. Essential tools include robust ECM including E-Filing and Workflow, integrated at the data level with Case Management Systems, with data-level intersystem communications among business partners. Without these tools, it’s hard to imagine how anyone can manage “records” at the data level. Because, let’s face it, at the atomic level, the data is a bunch of ones and zeros. Without knowing where it came from, how it was created, how it was processed, when it was “approved” (“By checking this box’ I agree…”), and so on, you CAN’T know what to do with it or how to manage it. Think of the marrying attorney. Multiply that situation by a zillion.

You can bet that Microsoft keeps track of when you checked the box; and you can also bet that they don’t keep a copy of their “Agreement” for everyone who checks the box. Developing the rules, processes, and procedures for today and tomorrow’s records requires thinking digitally about ALL information, whether it is or previously has been contained in a document.

 

eFiling: Audit Trail and Confidentiality

This is Part 10 of 10 in the eFiling Blog Series, check out Part 9 here.

To conclude this eFiling series, let’s look back at a few pieces posted in the past that dealt with the enhancement of both the audit trail and the control over confidentiality offered by eFiling.

Audit Trail

One of the fun pieces I wrote, inspired by a presentation David Slayton, included an explanation of the audit trail provided by a good eFiling system.

[David] says … “… I know EXACTLY where the document came from, and whose profile was used to send it.” Knowing that a document has come from the right place, and knowing whose secure profile was used to send it, constitute security orders of magnitude greater than a written signature on a piece of paper…

Taking David’s point a step further, in an appropriately implemented Enterprise Content Management (ECM) with workflow system, not only do you know where the document came from, you know where it’s been and where it’s supposed to be going. It’s like Billy’s trail in the Family Circus: it leaves its tracks. It keeps track of who has looked at it and when. It keeps track of what was done to it, by whom, and when. And, unlike Hansel and Gretel’s breadcrumb trail, it doesn’t disappear.

91_familycircus

…. [I]n a properly implemented ECM with workflow system, not only do we know that the document comes from who it’s supposed to; we know whether or not it’s been altered since it was sent, who has touched it, where it’s been, where it’s heading, whether it’s behavior makes sense, and if not, what would make better sense.

Stalking the Wily Electronic Documents, January 12, 2015

In another piece, I got to use one of my favorite pieces of doggerel (“Last night I saw upon the stair/ A little man who wasn’t there…”) to illustrate how a well-designed ECM system provides auditable Record Integrity:

A reliable document Chain of Custody in the paper world is merely a means of attempting to protect the Principal of Integrity. (Albeit an expensive, labor-intensive, highly unreliable, almost-never-completely followed means). Even with special viewing areas and monitors, do courts control ALL access by ALL staff, ALL attorneys, and ALL judges, not to mention cleaning and security staff? Not usually.

ECM provides a built-in mechanism for maintaining an audit trail of the Chain of Custody for court documents, providing end-to-end assurance of document integrity. ECM users view documents on screen and don’t come in contact with the physical file. From identity and signature authentication (when needed) at the front end, through tracking who accesses each document and when, to ”locking out changes” to prevent tampering, ECM absolutely protects document integrity…

Proving the Negative, October 3, 2011

Confidentiality

Confidentiality has several aspects. There’s things like judge’s notes, intended only for the judge or designated persons. Then there’s confidential information, like Social Security Numbers, minors’ names, abuse victims’ addresses, and so on, contained in otherwise public documents. There are totally confidential documents, like Secret Indictments. There are confidential case types, like some juvenile matters or adoptions, where the entire case is confidential.

eFiling and ECM provide greater control of confidential information, at all levels of granularity – from individual data element to entire case. Who can see what can be tightly controlled and administered. So, for example, attorneys on confidential juvenile cases can see their clients’ files, but no others. Court employees and judges with clearance can see confidential data that has been redacted using automated, workflow-enabled tools making it invisible to unauthorized persons.

However, as I noted in the March 14, 2012 posting,

This does not mean courts should not carefully review and, if required, modify rules and statutes to make certain there are no unpleasant surprises … The paper-on-demand court environment IS different than the hard-copy environment. The area of Public Records discoverability has wrinkles in the paper-on-demand environment that never arise in the paper world…

… Recommended best practice:

1) Ensure that disclosure rules call out both electronic and paper work product as their own non-disclosable category of information;

2) Maintain the non-disclosable work product documents in separate document types from formal court records, with security configuration that prevents viewing by unauthorized system users; and

3) Support electronic document annotations that don’t technically alter the original document and have their own security distinct from the document

Assuring Judicial Work Product Confidentiality in a Paper-On-Demand Court, March 12, 2012

While the business case for eFiling generally emphasizes the savings, convenience, work process streamlining, and quality improvements, the benefits of having a robust, easily managed audit trail and greatly enhanced control over confidentiality certainly should not be overlooked as additional “low-hanging fruit” when moving to eFiling and ECM.

Electronic Filing: Law Firm Considerations

This is Part 9 of 10 in the eFiling Blog Series, check out Part 8 here.

 Ten to fifteen years ago, some of the strongest advocacy for the rather radical idea of eFiling came from large law firms. While smaller firms had some serious doubts as to “what was in it for them”, larger firms had already learned (sometimes against their initial will) some major lessons from dealing with the then-nascent, mandatory, federal eFiling system. The biggest of these lessons may be loosely summarized as “eFiling is easier, cheaper, and more reliable than paper filing.”

Today, my technophobic wife, a long-time legal secretary, becomes frustrated and annoyed when she has to file a matter with a court that has yet to adopt eFiling. So much for the “It’s too complicated, too cumbersome, and too difficult” rants that I used to endure at the inception of eFiling.

69_mrs wormerRemoving the logistics of physically getting documents to court constitutes, in of itself, sufficient reason for law firms to appreciate eFiling. Firms are able to file from anywhere, at any time, immediately, and without sending anyone to the court or waiting for land mail to (hopefully) make its way to the destination. Even when “convenience fees” help fund the system, any fair accounting will rapidly conclude that the firm savings in staff salary, postage, and courier expense significantly mitigates, and probably exceeds any surcharge.

But the advantages (and cost savings) extend far beyond simply getting the documents to court. Most modern, robust eFiling systems also include automatic notice and confirmation of filing (or notice of rejection, to alert the firm there is a problem). The need to wait for a confirming postcard and then connect it with the file (all of which chews up more staff time) is eliminated; not to mention the potential for malpractice claims.

Moreover, the e-service capabilities of most modern eFiling systems probably generate even more dollar savings than the court filing piece. In two party cases, the savings will be significant. In multi-party cases, the savings can be extremely large. Again, the savings accrue on both ends of the transaction: On already filed cases, service on all parties is automatic. Moreover, confirmation/proof of e-service is ALSO automatic.

For firms doing bulk filings (like collections and small claims, for example), and for multi-party and class action matters, the entire process of claims and case handling can be streamlined along entirely new models.

There are, of course, some important areas of which firms must be aware and provide due diligence. With eFiling comes a host of new court rules. Where a firm deals with just one court, knowing that court’s rules and aligning the firm’s processes with them will take some effort. (As an aside, automated workflow can be of tremendous assistance.)

Far more common will be firms that deal with multiple courts. While there are various initiatives to achieve some form of standards, the fact is, just as has historically been the case, that it seems like no two courts do things exactly the same way.

Even courts using the same eFiling system may (and probably do) have differing rules. When filings are deemed received may be different. Rules for re-eFiling rejected filings may be different. Fee amounts may be different.

The same thing applies if a court is using an Electronic Filing Manager (EFM). While the actual mechanics of filing will be pretty similar for each court despite possible differences in their eFiling systems, each court is going to have its own set of rules. And as we all know too well, courts can be VERY sticky about insisting on adherence to their variation, no matter how obscure.

Fortunately, documentation, training, and “help desk” support has gotten very good. Many courts offer Continuing Legal Education sessions (with credit) for training and updates, and/or refreshers on the ins and outs of eFiling. Law firms should take advantage of it all and not skimp on staff (including attorney) training.

I expect that my wife reflects the typical view of law firm staff when she energetically (and without prompting from me) declares that she would never go back to the days before eFiling.

Coming up next: Blog 10 of 10: eFiling Blog Series – Audit Trail and Confidentiality

 

eFiling Bind-Overs and Appeals: Harvesting Some Low-Hanging Fruit

This is Part 8 of 10 in the eFiling Blog Series, check out Part 7 here.

In the standard model of eFiling, a litigant (whether private or public) initiates a case by eFiling with the court. Another, sometimes overlooked, opportunity to harvest some low-hanging fruit involves court-to-court eFiling. Using eFiling to transfer matters from a trial court to an appellate court, as in appeals, or from an initiating court to a trial court, as in a bind-over, offers efficiencies, savings, and process improvement.

104_casebindConsider first appeals from a trial court to an appellate court. Preparation of the Record on Appeal (RoA) is a strictly rule-driven process requiring the transfer of a broad but defined subset of the trial court’s data, metadata, and documents related to the case. Manually selecting what to send, packaging it with the prescribed order, format, and organization, creating the necessary indexes to documents, and transporting it to the appellate court consumes considerable time from one or more highly skilled knowledge workers.

On the receiving end, the appellate court must review the package for completeness and accuracy, re-enter the data and metadata on its own systems, and create its own case files. If the appellate court has its own Electronic Content Management System (ECMS) it may need to scan in the documents and enter the necessary metadata, duplicating entry again.

Appellate court implementation of eFiling for litigants continues to advance at an accelerating rate. However, many of the same appellate courts courts handle data and document intercourse with their originating courts in a fairly primitive manner, which is to say, with paper or static image documents and forms utilizing little data centricity.

By extending eFiling to the courts from which it receives appeals, the appellate court can greatly streamline its case/file setup process, as well as its interactions with the trial courts during and at the conclusion of the appellate phase. It could assure getting well organized, complete, and compliant Records on Appeal from all its constituent courts, while greatly reducing the time spent reviewing RoA’s by some of the court’s most highly skilled staff.

On the flip side, the benefits to the trial courts would be equally significant. A court with its own ECMS could configure its workflow according to the specifications of the appellate court to automatically generate the RoA. Acknowledgements, requests for further information, and case disposition (judgments, remands, etc.) would loop back to its ECMS and workflow from the appellate court.

Many of the same considerations apply in the case of moving a case from a lower appeal court to a higher level, or back again, or both. In many ways, bind-overs would be a lot simpler to configure than appellate RoA’s. Of course, what they lack in complexity they make up for in volume. Streamlining the bind-over process offers great efficiencies to both initiating and receiving courts.

In both the case of Appeals and the case of bind-overs, the filer/receiver model is usually many-to-one. That is, a trial court generally sends appeals to one appellate court (with some exceptions for appeals direct to a higher appellate court), while an appellate court generally receives appeals from many trial courts. Bind-overs likewise typically follow a similar many-to-one model.

In many, if not most places, the “sending” or “originating” court may not be responsible to the same political and/or funding authority as the “receiving” court. This reality causes the Three Rules of Funding eFiling to rear their often unbecoming heads: 1) It isn’t free; 2) Someone has to pay for it; and 3) The chosen strategy has implications. In short, a solution that should be win-win may not be considered because no one wants to pay for the whole thing.

Five years ago that might have been a persuasive argument. However, today the answer should be different, because the world is a different place. eFiling has penetrated all levels of courts. Probably the most direct strategy in this instance is to have the “receiving ” courts extend their eFiling systems to their “originating ” courts. The marginal cost to the “receiving” court would be more than offset by the resulting savings.

It sure looks like low-hanging fruit.

Coming up next: Blog 9 of 10: eFiling Blog Series – Law Firm Considerations

eFiling in Criminal Cases

iStock_000004326573MediumThis is Part 7 of 10 in the eFiling Blog Series, check out Part 6 here.

As eFiling has taken root and come of age over the past several years, my sense has been that the majority of deployments start in, and sometimes never go beyond, the  non-criminal case types (civil, family law, probate, juvenile, and so on). Traffic cases may sometimes be an exception; but in those instances, the impetus usually starts on the law enforcement end with eCitations, which are sent to the court. Too often missing are felony and misdemeanor case processing, which continue to operate in largely paper document-centric processes.

While there are no doubt lots of different reasons why eFiling of criminal cases may lag, the temptation is to follow Deep Throat’s admonishment to “Follow the money”.

Earlier in this series, Funding eFiling – Selecting a Strategy discussed the importance – and implications – of the eFiling funding strategy. To recap the “Three Rules That Are Always True”,

  1. eFiling systems are NOT FREE, either to acquire or to operate;
  2. Someone is going to have to pay for it;
  3. Each strategy has important direct and indirect costs, benefits, and implications.

As discussed, one model involves the court paying for the system, making it essentially free to the filers. That model depends on the ability and willingness of the court’s funding authority to provide the up-front, as well as on-going, funding.

Where this model is used, the tremendous leverage in process improvement and efficiency within the court and across the related agencies – prosecutor, law enforcement, corrections – generally encourage rapid adoption of eFiling of criminal cases. From the standpoint of the funding authorities, in addition to the non-financial benefits, the cost savings incident to eFiling result in recovery of the budget dollars invested.

Where the court cannot obtain funding except from filers, Rules One and Two rear their unwelcome heads. Traffic citations can sometimes work, because often it is possible to tack a fee onto fines to fund the system. But as is discussed in Funding eFiling – Calculating the Cost, getting the extra money from criminal defendants is generally not a tenable option.

Thus, prosecutors and police agencies, while they would love to have the benefits of being able to eFile, are not willing to pay eFiling fees in the same manner as the attorneys for civil litigants. That model simply does not work very well for criminal cases, as the prosecutor’s “clients”, the law enforcement agencies who bring them cases, are in no better position to pay fees for their submissions to the prosecutor.

Allowing this stalemate to continue is painful, like watching shy and inexperienced junior high kids at the school dance. Somebody needs to get these people together! In many ways the already tight and pervasive integrated workflow among and across the agencies, the capabilities offered by eFiling to integrate with the various agencies’ Case, Document, and Records Management Systems, and the efficiencies to be gained from the data-centric nature of robust eFiling systems provide more benefit than civil eFiling.

One solution successfully utilized in a number of places involves inter-agency cost sharing for the backbone of the eFiling system. Filings, data, and documents can flow electronically from agency to agency. Using industry standards, the data-centric filings and communications can feed each agency’s workflow engine and can alleviate duplicate data entry both within each agency and across the justice system.

eFiling and related technology particularly tailored to each agency – the court, the prosecutor, law enforcement, corrections/jail – can further leverage the value of eFiling for each agency. Extensions to facilitate officer data, for example, can streamline filings from the police to the prosecutor. Data security can be robustly protected beyond that possible in a paper document-centric environment.

Over four years ago I suggested that eFiling would be particularly productive in the criminal area. Subsequent events, progress, and increased technological sophistication have only made the case stronger. Joining together, the justice agencies can create enough internal savings to “self-fund” eFiling in their arena.

Coming up next: Blog 8 of 10: eFiling Blog Series – Case Bind Over/Appeal

Data-Centric eFiling

This is Part 6 of 10 in the eFiling Blog Series, check out Part 5 here.

It’s easy to think of the key differentiating feature between traditional, paper document filing and eFiling as relating primarily to the method whereby the document is transported and received. That is, physically in traditional filing, and electronically in eFiling. And, of course, that is a key differentiating feature; but only one of many.

Beyond how the document is delivered, consider what is delivered. At the most primitive level, imaged documents – basically, pictures – can be delivered. PDF documents containing image and text are marginally better. Yes, these documents are electronic; but it’s like playing “Where’s Waldo” to find the relevant information on the page. eFiling documents in this way is referred to as “Document-centric eFiling”.

At the other end of the spectrum, there may be no document at all. Data is entered by the sender, validated, transmitted and stored by the eFiling system. Virtually all commerce on the Internet is done using a data-centric approach. The important point is that the focus is on the data, not on any particular document – and once you have validated data in a computer many other efficiencies are possible.

So why do many eFiling systems still use a document-centric approach? The answer lies in tradition. Courts are steeped in it, and the rules were developed before computers existed – so the paper document has reliably served the role as the primary communication vehicle for centuries.

Traditional documents still serve many functions. Most married couples would rather frame their wedding certificate than a URL, for instance. But where a document exists to be a vehicle for transmission and/or a repository of the data, it is simply in the way. So data-centric systems produce documents on-the-fly, when needed.

In addition, there are some very important side benefits to a Court or Prosecutor in adopting a data-centric model: 1) The recipient has reduced data entry costs (and less data entry errors), 2) The filer provides more complete data – because the eFiling system prompts and validates data along the way, 3) cases flow faster with less exceptions, 4) searching and managing cases is more productive, and many other benefits.

The spectrum from most primitive (playing “Where’s Waldo on a screen”) to most sophisticated (totally data-centric) has been labeled the eCourts Maturity Model.  The National Center provides an excellent overview by Bob Roper and Jorge Basta.  Using this model, courts can determine where they fall on the maturity spectrum.

The Maturity Model has two dimensions: First, how closely is data capture, transmission, and storage tied to documents (called the Forms/Documents Migration Dimension); and second, what is the business and technological environment of the court (called the System Characteristics dimension).

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eFiling Maturity Model
Bob Roper and Jorge Basta, eCourts Maturity Model, eCourts 2012, December 10, 2013

Along the Forms/Document Migration dimension, the spectrum runs from scanned paper (image based forms) to static PDFs  (static forms) to fixed PDF based forms with data fields (dynamic forms) to wizard-like data entry, where forms are generated later as needed (forms-free).

The Systems Characteristics include factors such as who is filing, what can the eFiling system do (what are its functions and features), how well does it integrate with other systems, how is the system designed (including whether it is based on standards), and how well can the court adapt its culture and business processes to include the new ways of doing things.

With the tremendous strides in the technological power and sophistication of not just eFiling but all court supporting technology, the real question for a court today has shifted  to where the court wants to be. While few may want to be stuck in the lower left corner, not every court is necessarily anxious to try to move all the way to the upper right (see, for example, In Praise of Tortoises). Is the court ready to let go of the paper and wet signatures? Does the court itself, or its partners, have the systems and infrastructure in place to support true forms-free filing?

The point here is that there is a long way to go on the eFiling journey. For lots of reasons, many of them covered in past pieces here, moving to pure data-centric eFiling offers profound benefits. But it takes planning, work, and commitment.  Using the eCourts Maturity Model as one tool can help structure these efforts.

Coming up next: Blog 7 of 10: eFiling Blog Series – Criminal Cases