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.

Funding eFiling: Calculating the Cost

This is the conclusion of Part 3 of 10 in the eFiling Blog Series. Check out the first half of Part 3 here.

fundingefiling2Handling of indigents in an eFiling system will be profoundly affected by the chosen funding model. In a fully court-funded model with no user-based fees, it’s simple: indigents can be handled the same as any other filers. However, any model deriving funding from user fees or service charges, both policy and procedural considerations are highly significant. On the policy side, there are access to justice considerations. Any model basing fees on total cost divided by number of filings must, in order to avoid major underestimation of real revenue, fully account for the portion of eFiling attributable to indigents.

A number of courts have made the mistake of calculating costs based on number of filings, only to later realize that filings by indigents comprise a large portion of the totals; and those must be “carried” by the rest. Then, the system must be able to identify and appropriately process those who are exempt from fee payments (which may occur in many places during the filing process; not simply where “filing fees” are typically collected).

In any event, any system that is collecting fees from filers (whether eFiling fees, or other statutory fees) should have a mechanism to handle indigents. The most common mechanism is to allow the user to file an “application for waiver” document which the court can approve on a case by case basis and thereafter the user can file to that case without cost.

A major consideration with Pro Se litigants, particularly in a “mandatory” eFiling system, is making the system easy to use for those who have never used it before. Consider: in the paper world, one could mail a document to the court. Courts didn’t have to help people figure out how to use the postal service. With eFiling, people are in a completely new and unfamiliar world. Will the interfaces be simple enough; and how much will the support (including real-time, “live” personnel) cost? A related topic is the “morphing of what used to be court law libraries into staffed media centers which, among other things, can support pro-se litigants.

Again, aside from a fully court-funded model, a seminal question is “What ARE other government agencies?” Clearly prosecutors, but how about indigent defense providers? Executive agencies? Private contractors on government contract? And so on. Then, how and how much should each various class pay?  And to whom? In the paper world, the court never bore the cost of postage for incoming filings; does this imply the court should have no responsibility for the cost to submit a document to a private filing portal? Politically, the court’s partners will undoubtedly notice the cost if they are required to bear it, even if the actual “filing convenience fee” is waived. Models could include, for example, a “purpose-built” EFSP for use by partner agencies to streamline the filing process.

Refer back to Rule 1. eFiling is NOT free. For example, because we are not used to thinking of credit card processing fees as an additional “cost” when we shop, we forget that the merchant has to “eat” those costs. With eFiling, the court is the merchant.

Up front and on-going user support can be easily overlooked or, worse, vastly underestimated. Pro-se litigants (not to mention out of town attorneys, occasional users, and so on) will need support; and a court underestimates the amount and cost at its peril.

Depending on the implementation and strategy, there are any number of cost and expenses that are not obvious. Absent rigorous due diligence, many of the costs may be overlooked until too late.

Two key points to remember about filer payment systems, be they credit card, escrow accounts, billings, or other system: 1) Every payment collection system has a cost; and 2) Someone is going to pay that cost. A related point is that avoidance by the court of the costs (say, for example, by arranging for “face amount” payment by a credit card processor) may very well result in substantially higher costs to the filer than if the court simply figured the credit card processing fee into the amount it sets as the charge.

eFiling entails costs for both implementation and ongoing operation. Some costs are direct and obvious; others are indirect and/or not easy to spot. A number of different strategies exist for funding these costs. Determination of both the nature of the costs and the funding model, as well as the nature and type of ongoing responsibilities the court and its partners must assume requires rigorous due diligence to develop and execute a solid, cost-effective, sufficiently funded eFiling system.

The good news is that an experienced eFiling vendor can help identify analyze the court’s situation, the available opportunities, the true costs, and the realistic choices, enabling the court to build its eFiling solution using a solid financial model.

Coming up next: Blog 4  of 10: eFiling Blog Series – CMS Integration

Still Want Those Printers? Ask Benjamin the Donkey

“Benjamin the donkey… would say … that God had given him a tail to keep the flies off, but that he would rather have no tail and no flies.”

From Animal Farm, by George Orwell

A friend complained to me about the succession of problems with her printer. It was when she started telling me how important her printer was to her that I began to reflect on the insightful, if cynical, observation by Orwell’s donkey. Who knew he was a systems analyst?

When dinosaurs roamed the earth and I was a young systems analyst, courts were just learning that unless printers were made readily available, users simply would not use them as intended. Eventually, courts figured out that if people had the choice of electronically creating their output, followed by having to leave their desks to go to a printer down the hall to retrieve it, they’d simply write it out or type it instead. Thus court management (reluctantly, in view of the price) purchased and installed a lot more printers because of the strategic importance of getting everyone to maximize use of the systems.

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Now, every tech support person knows that printers, however necessary, are the Devil’s work. Trouble tickets regarding printers are probably more frequent and more frustrating than just about any other kind. But, thank heavens everyone has those printers.

Because they need those printers for… for… Well, yes, there are some things they need the printers for; but they sure aren’t the same things they needed them for 20, ten, or even five years ago. The fact is that managing content electronically changes both the tactical and strategic importance of printers. Courts should give some attention to both.

Tactically, it’s almost like Benjamin gets his wish for no more flies. Or at least a lot fewer of them. Thus, every printer acquisition and placement should be made in view of the need to print in a court with fully implemented Electronic Content Management (ECM). Analysis will probably show need for fewer, less powerful (at least locally), and less expensive printers. Acquisition and maintenance cost of printers should be expected to drop.

Strategically, the objective should be to have the minimum possible distribution of printers. Simply stated, minimizing the amount of paper documents goes a long way toward maximizing the effectiveness of ECM. In instances where printing a document may appear to be a better, faster, easier or more efficient, the court should stop and more carefully analyze the situation.

Pete Kiefer, of Maricopa County Superior Court and leader of NACM’s Court Futures project, reminds me that that in cases such as this, application of The Five Why’s would be in order: Asking iterative questions to get to the root reason(s) for the perceived situation. For a first iteration I suggest, “What causes printing a document to seem a better solution in this case?” Almost always, upon consideration of all factors, printing paper documents turns out more expensive, less efficient and disruptive to the overall process.

Whether, in the face of a 95% plus drop in the fly population, Benjamin (curmudgeonly cuss that he was) would actually have had his tail bobbed, one will never know. If he resisted for fashion reasons, absent other consequences he could be given a pass. But if it markedly impacted his personal hygiene, bring on the clippers. Likewise, if the only consideration with where and how to use printers were people’s comfort with paper, so be it. But, really, the stakes are much more strategic.

 

 

 

 

 

Irony

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Recent headlines concerning inmates who escaped jail using forged documents caused me to look back to my first blog entitled A Judge’s Secret Fear of Electronic Signatures. In it I quoted a senior, highly respected judge expressing his concern about the security of eSignature.  He said, in part,

 “My concern then and now is with the availability of others using the computer for making documents official. With the personal signature, there would have to be a forgery to make the document appear to be an original signature. The availability of a signature stamp can be regulated or precluded; however, once the computer has the signature capability, anyone with the password can access the e-file and create an authorized signature on the document. The ability to establish that this was an unauthorized signature would appear difficult.

“I also have a concern that the security system appears of doubtful reliability to preclude someone from being able to enter the system from the outside and thus be able to alter or create false documents with apparent valid signatures.

“I can envision cases where there is a great deal at risk where it could become worthwhile to prepare a false document with an apparently valid signature to secure the release of a prisoner or to effect some other act to the considerable detriment of others.”

 That discussion occurred three years ago.  Now, it seems, the judge’s fears were realized, albeit in a court in a different state.   But, the recent escape didn’t happen because of e-signatures or electronic documents.  Indeed, it appears that the forgeries purported to be original, wet signatures.

Let’s return to my original blog.  Its point was that the judge was absolutely right to be concerned with security and court managers have an absolute responsibility to demonstrate to their judges that they have addressed and are faithfully managing the technology, policies, processes and procedures to assure their ongoing effectiveness.  That the judge was unaware of the security setup in his court represented a barrier to acceptance that could, and should, easily be remedied through appropriate communication by court management.

Based in part on the judge’s concerns, in my white paper, Legal Considerations of E-Signature, I point out that security is essential in EITHER a paper-based OR a paper-on-demand environment:

“As an analogy: A treasure chest is in a vault at the top of a castle tower surrounded by a moat with a drawbridge. There are multiple safeguards. However, if the drawbridge is down, the gate is open, the tower stairs are unattended and the door to the vault is ajar, then despite all the safeguards, there is little security.

“Contrast this scenario with one in which the chest is guarded day and night by one sentry with a sword. Arguably while there are fewer safeguards, there is more security, but this scenario is problematic. The guard – however loyal and motivated – can fall asleep, be outnumbered, leave his post, and so on. It’s a risky and expensive system.

In a properly configured paper-on-demand court, every interaction with documents and files is recorded.  Anyone reviewing the files with an eye toward effectuating the type of scam that resulted in the recent unauthorized prisoner release would be leaving a trail of evidence.

Ironically, the most catastrophic possibility that the judge feared – forgery of release documentation – turned out to be not even slightly protected through use of wet signatures.

That isn’t to say that e-signature would have, in itself, provided more protection.  It really isn’t that hard to forge an electronically imaged signature either.  The point is that:

“In the paper/wet signature world and the electronic document/electronic signature world, it is critically important to carefully manage the environment, the technology, policies and procedures, and operational responsibility, and to
 audit for compliance. However, it is much harder and more expensive to do it in the paper/wet signature environment.

Foreshadowing
Looking past the irony, something else starts to come into focus.  In the recent release case, apparently all agencies – the court and the corrections division – acted exactly as required by their existing policies and procedures.  So, in a world where production of fakes and duplicates that cannot, as a practical matter, be authenticated or de-authenticated on their face, how can down-stream consumers (like prisons or banks) be certain they are acting in accordance with valid judicial orders?

Stay tuned….


To learn more about the safety and legality of electronic signature, download a free whitepaper by Jeffrey Barlow on The Legal Considerations of eSignature.