Why eFiling Alone Isn’t Enough

By Steve Glisky, Government Practice Manager, ImageSoft

Courts making the transition from paper document filing to eFiling have taken an important first step in streamlining operations and saving resources. EFiling is a good place to start since it helps satisfy constituent demand for greater online access. EFiling alone, however, typically falls short of achieving one of the most pressing goals of the court: eliminating the burden of maintaining a paper court file. 69_mrs wormer

If a court makes eFiling mandatory, it’s only natural to think that the Clerk will soon stop maintaining paper. Many courts soon realize that their so-called document management system simply lacks the functionality required to meet the processing needs of the court.  Most of these solutions offer a simple document storage and retrieval system with file share links to their CMS. Once they’re confronted with process steps that require rules-based routing, most courts typically end up just printing, processing, and maintaining a dual paper case file.

The benefits of eFiling are multiplied when paired with a robust document management and workflow solution. Progressive courts use advanced document management and workflow with eFiling to achieve a true digital case flow management environment.


To learn more about avoiding the printing of eFiled documents for court processes, click here.

Here are a few key features to consider when evaluating a document management solution for your court.

Electronic Case File

Presentation and preservation of the electronic case file is the cornerstone of the electronic court. An intuitive electronic case file dramatically increases buy-in from key stakeholders and creates a better-than-paper experience with features such as:

  • Intuitive filing structure: Case files are organized and managed using color-coded tabs with advanced filtering and sorting to make finding the right documents easier.
  • Revision control: The system keeps and maintains prior revisions, preserving the integrity of the case file as documents get marked-up and changed.
  • Document history: All activity associated with a document should be logged and be easily accessible, including workflow transaction history, who viewed/ printed/annotated/updated/signed, etc.
  • Redaction: Confidential information must be redacted before the public can view documents. Courts need a method for redaction without having to print off digital files or photocopy paper ones, redact, and then scan in for public access. Those courts with high case volumes should consider an automated method to reduce the burden on staff.
  • Document retention: The system automatically purges documents from the electronic case file according to the Clerk’s document retention and disposal schedule.
  • Security: All roles within the justice system have secured access to the electronic case file in the way that works best for them, only allowing access to the documents that they have rights to view, i.e., public, sealed, confidential, and expunged records.
  • Full text search: Searching document content across the entire case file provides high value for both the judge and staff. The ability to search across multiple cases is also a major benefit.
  • Mobile device support: Since the physical case file no longer exists, the Court must consider how the parties will access the electronic case file using tablets, smart phones, or some other device (e.g., kiosks).

 

Workflow

Workflow is the single most significant component to a digital case flow management environment because of the process efficiencies it creates. All courts have defined steps that govern how documents are processed. Workflow allows for automated routing and processing of electronic documents and data. Consider these key workflow features:

  • A rules engine with a simple interface to manage step-by-step routing rules: Authorized court personnel should be able to maintain these rules and reduce IT dependency.
  • Electronic forms with a forms designer and management tool to convert paper forms into electronic forms: The case jacket and decision sheet are commonly used electronic forms.
  • Electronic signatures and markup capability that allow a user to markup and edit a document before signing: Consider a solution with judicial stamps with support for both top and bottom line text and proxy signing for authorized users.
  • Electronic notification of parties: This reduces significant postage and improves processing speed.
  • Electronic certification: It improves service and integrity without having to print and physically seal documents. The delivery should include an authentication site for verifying document authenticity, an audit trail of recipient access, and a method to expire documents.
  • Packet preparation organizes a case file with a coversheet according to specific requirements set forth by the higher court. Courts typically use this for bind-overs and appeals.
  • Standard interface for connecting and exchanging information with CMS.
  • Electronic arraignment that streamlines packet creation, arraignment and the document signature process: It should support both video and face-to-face arraignments.
  • A judicial dashboard: It provides an intuitive tool for both the judge and staff to process the electronic docket.

Summary

Courts are adopting eFiling at a much greater rate to improve customer service and online access. Prior to making eFiling mandatory, courts should carefully consider the capabilities of their document management and workflow platform to see if it’s going to meet their requirements for creating a true digital case flow management environment. Equally important is to determine how best to map their manual based processes to the new electronic paradigm. Finally, the new solution should accommodate the unique needs of your judicial officers.

Those that have successfully made this transition understand that it’s a once-in-a-generation opportunity to revolutionize the efficiency and transparency of the court.

Is your court ready to move beyond eFiling?

eFiling is Coming Soon to your State – The Advantages of Mandatory vs. Permissive eFiling

By Brad Smith, Senior Justice Consultant, ImageSoft

When I started working on my first state and local court electronic filing project in 1998, I truly felt that it would be adopted much like computer assisted legal research offered by LexisNexis and Westlaw.

Here we are, nearly 20 years later, and state and local courts are finally dipping their toes into the eFiling water. iStock_000011704687_Medium

Unlike the Federal Courts CM/ECF (Case Management / Electronic Files) system which started mandating electronic filing in the early 2000s, state courts have struggled with adopting electronic filing, let alone making the decision to mandate eFiling for civil and criminal cases.

Texas launched an eFiling portal in 2003, which allowed for permissive eFiling on a county-by-county basis. What the state realized after 10-plus years of “go-lives” and an 18 percent adoption rate, is that permissive eFiling is a nightmare for the attorneys, Clerk of Courts offices and the judges.


Click here for more information on JusticeTech TrueFiling™

For the attorneys and their staff, it becomes very difficult to keep track of which cases or jurisdictions allow for eFiling and which do not. For firms operating statewide in Texas, for example, that would mean your legal assistants / paralegals would need to monitor cases in all 254 counties.

For Clerk of Courts, permissive eFiling presented challenges as well. The office processes an incredible number of cases each year and workflow is critical to keeping the court records accurate and available to the public, attorneys and judges in their jurisdiction. In the permissive environment, the clerk’s staff now needs to operate both a paper workflow queue and an electronic workflow queue to maintain the court records, which adds time and complexity to their jobs.

Even judges, who traditionally use paper court files even when their clerk’s office has taken the time and effort to scan over the counter filings, do not have timely access to electronic court records in a permissive eFiling environment. The steps that are required to convert paper pleadings into electronic images (intake, scan and file) can take up to 24 hours, while eFiled pleadings processed by the clerks’ staff are immediately accessible to the judges via their document management system or judicial dashboard.

The Advantages of Mandated eFiling

Just in the last four years, Florida (Civil and Criminal) and Texas (Civil) have mandated eFiling, while Indiana and Illinois have released mandatory eFiling schedules for 2017 and 2018. While it’s not surprising news by itself, the fact that these mandates are taking place in states that do not have a statewide case management system is encouraging.

It is my hope that the next wave of states in the early eFiling planning stages use the lessons learned by their Supreme Court / Administrative Office of the Courts colleagues and bypass permissivie eFiling to move straight to mandatory eFiling, which will benefit all stakeholders involved.

Which approach has your court considered?

 

Hacking Outside the Box

I think it was Arnold Palmer who remarked that beginners often find golf easy because they haven’t had time to learn how hard it is. That’s essentially the sentiment that drives the “Hackathon” mentality. At e-Courts 2016 last month, the Court Hackathon sessions were among the most interesting and the most eye-opening.

121_hacking

I didn’t know, going in, what a “Hackathon” is. I assumed it was a bunch of real-life Big Bang Theory young techies trying to break court enterprise systems.

It turns out I was half right. It does involve a bunch of BBT young techies. However, rather than breaking things, they are building them. Hackathoners enter a convention hall-size room filled with tables, chairs, computers, and various forms of highly caffeinated beverages and high caloric-content junk food. They are tasked with conceiving, designing, and creating a working, useful application. They have something like thirty-six hours in which to do it. They form teams and have at it. At the end, they show what they’ve built.

The really exciting part is that these folks, being not only young, but also largely unencumbered by any idea of the internal operations of the justice system in general or the courts in particular, are literally unaware that certain things JUST CAN’T BE DONE.

At one session, the Grand Prize winners presented their winning solution (their presentation, along with the others from the conference, is available online).

In many ways, the actual solution took a back seat to the attitude, approach, and world view of the “Hackathoners”. These young people view courts and the justice system from the perspective of people who have never, since the time they were slapped with GPS bracelets in the hospital before they were all the way born, known a world without the Internet, Google, Amazon, smartphones, and so on. When they have a question, they expect to be able to ask in normal language and to instantly get a straightforward, relevant response.

When describing how the team determined what “problem” to solve, they told a very non-flattering (to the justice agency) story of trying to report a theft. The online interface consisted of a half-dozen or more text-packed screens requesting myriad information, almost none of which seemed (to the victim) to be even slightly relevant to his attempt to report the crime. (The victim’s date of birth? His employer? Really?)

Now, from an internal agency standpoint, the question would be, “Well, what’s wrong with that? We’re on the cutting edge – we’re actually using Form-Driven E-Filing. Not only that, the citizen (to whom we have outsourced our data entry) can access it online. You mean you’re not thanking us for this?

The team decided to attempt to develop a more friendly experience for the user. They selected a court application: responding to an eviction (FED) notice. To see how it works, watch the presentation, which includes a demo.

Here’s what I think is particularly important: The key to the solution is what is known as Natural Language Processing (NLP). You know it as Siri, Cortina, Alexa, Echo, and so on. As the team pointed out, only now is the processing power becoming available to make NLP a part of practical solutions.

So here’s the punch line insofar as it relates to ECM and E-Filing. Remember the Six Building Blocks of ECM?  (Feel free to go back and review… ) Well, Number One is Capture. And Capture is starting to move to interactive, NPL interfaces: the next evolution beyond form-driven data capture.

The data so captured from natural conversations will feed into the Workflow engine. And the results will in turn be consumed by, among other things, the NLP itself as it hones its ability to effectively interact with users, making sense of what it hears and giving appropriate and meaningful responses.

Really, really exciting stuff. At least to a geek like me. The Hackathoners, not knowing any better, gave us a glimpse of where we’re all headed. Seemed to them to be the right thing to do.

 

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.

 

Black Belt: Learning to Learn

113_black-beltThe term “Martial Arts” may seem strange to those who have never pursued them. To those who have, however, the term makes perfect sense. Karate, judo, tai-chi, kung-fu, and myriad others, are indeed arts, requiring years of dedicated study and practice to master.

That’s not to say that there is no benefit at the front end. Beginners can pick up the rudiments of self-defense in a relatively short order. Indeed, a lot of folks look no further, in the same way that tourists can pick up enough of a foreign language to get by on a vacation, although they cannot be said to “speak the language”. And, there are a lot of benefits that accrue at the outset: improved fitness, enhanced self-awareness, increased self-confidence, and so on.

Most of those reasons are why people take up a martial art in the first place. When they start, even achieving Green Belt status seems almost impossibly remote. Mastery requires internalizing a complex and non-intuitive set of reflexes that permeate every action and every thought. And there’s just no way to do that without investing a lot of time and effort. Thus, to novices (White Belts), the Green Belts appear to be outstanding, the Brown Belts appear to be perfect practitioners; and the Black Belts are practically gods.

So, here’s a bit of a surprise: A First Degree Black Belt, achieved after years of effort, does not mean that the person has learned all are there is to know. Yes, he or she has become highly proficient, both in the Martial Art and in life in most aspects of life in general. But achievement of First Degree Black Belt status means, within the Martial Arts community, that the recipient is finally qualified and ready to begin learning.

In that regard, the recent announcement that Macomb County, Michigan Circuit Court now processes more documents through its E-Filing System than are received in paper format caused me to reflect that Macomb County and others who have been diligently working on ECM for years are approaching new thresholds. Yes, the ECM systems long ago began providing significant savings, efficiencies, and improved customer service, much as a White Belt realizes great benefits from the first several years of training. But as the courts leave the old paradigm behind – shedding its old skin, as it were – after significant time, effort, and learning, they are positioned to begin leveraging ECM by fully shifting to information management paradigms unencumbered by the limitations of the old world. Things like automatic redaction, fully automated document lifecycle control, rich and detailed metrics of all kinds, real-time data aggregation, and much, much more will be just the beginning.

In fact, no one knows the nature and extent of the capabilities that will be emerging, because unlike martial arts, there are not generations of high-level Black Belts who have been here before. The currently emerging ECM-cognizant courts are the first generation.

The next several years will be interesting and fraught with possibility. Organization, including courts, have to “learn to learn”, just as people do. Many of those who embarked on the ECM journey years ago are, after years of effort and experience, becoming comfortable with Change Management at levels never before possible or even contemplated. For adults set in their ways (and courts, as we know, have been very set in their ways), learning a second language is usually pretty challenging. But learning a new language makes learning yet another language much, much easier. Likewise, fully internalizing a new technology paradigm such as ECM makes identification of and transition to even better operations significantly smoother and less traumatic.

Macomb County Circuit Court and its peers have come a long ways. More exciting, they are in much better position to move forward with each passing step. Tipping to a majority of e-filed documents is a big one. Moving up to the darker-colored belt. Congratulations; I look forward to watching as the journey continues.

 

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 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