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.

What Is An “EFM”, and Why Should I Care?

When I first started watching Star Trek, which was well after it was cancelled, I didn’t see them in order and had no background as to the “universe” in which the stories were supposedly taking place.   Among other things, I used to chuckle at the fact that everyone, aliens of all stripes, as well as humans, always understood each other.  It didn’t matter if the aliens were of long-standing acquaintance, or if they came from a hither-to unknown galaxy or dimension– everyone spoke and understood English.

Later I came to find out that somewhere in the storyline, Gene Roddenberry, creator of the Star Trek series, had provided a technological (if fictional) explanation: The Universal Translator.  A handy thing to have when you’ve got people speaking a lot of different languages and don’t know what the next one will be.

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So what does this little vignette have to do with document management for courts?  Well, the same principle applies in the realm of e-filing.  Consider: When a court implements an e-filing solution (EFS), it can tell its partners — attorneys, prosecutors, and others — how the documents are to be submitted.  The rules, processes, and protocols revolve around the particular court practices, as well as the technological structure and needs of thee e-filing system.  The filers can incorporate those rules and standards into their practices, and all is good.

Everything works well, until….  another court decides to implement e-filing.  Since there’s going to be a certain number of filers who file with both courts, their lives just got a bit more complicated.  Now, the second court can elect to implement the same type of EFS and do everything the same way as the first court.  Or, all courts in an area could decide, beforehand, which EFS they’d all get, etc., etc.

The point is, there’s likely to be variety.  Even worse, it’s hard to predict just WHEN or WHERE the variety will emerge.  Courts may not, as a matter of course, keep track of what OTHER courts their business partners do business with are doing.  Often, after years of operating in blissful independence, separate “islands” find themselves connected.  For example, formerly “local” law firms may expand to a regional scope.  Increasing world shrinkage, caused by faster communications, may give rise to more jurisdictional overlap.  And so on.

Enter the Electronic Filing Manager (EFM).  Like the Star Trek “Universal Translator”, the EFM allows each court to conduct e-filing activities with multiple filers, many of whom must deal with different courts that speak varying e-filing “languages”.

The EFM works by providing one common set of protocols that users of any e-filing system can use.  The filers then send their documents to the EFM[BL1] .  On the other end, each court provides the EFM with its e-filing technical standards and requirements.  The EFM can then “translate” the information from each e-filer into the format required by the particular court.

The key to this solution is the use of a common EFM by all of the courts in the area.  To this end, some states have started to provide for the introduction of EFMs to facilitate statewide e-filing. Doing so allows each court to continue to implement any new system or to use whatever e-filing system it has already implemented.  In all cases, e-filers will be able to e-file in all courts in one way, using the same process, thereby removing one of the greatest impediments to full scale e-filing.

As we are all finding out, an awful lot of what was science fiction in the ’60s is, or will become, the reality of our age.  With the advent of Electronic Filing Managers, chalk up another one for Gene Roddenberry.