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.

Electronic Court Filing Standards: What, Why, and Where are They Headed?

This is Part 2 of 10 in the eFiling Blog Series, check out Part 1 here.

99_eFilingstandards“This tale grew in the telling…”
J.R.R. Tolkien, in his Forward to the Lord of the Rings trilogy

Tolkien’s statement is nowhere more apt than in discussing electronic court filing (ECF) standards. From a small, informal group of visionaries trying to agree on the definition and format of a handful of court terms in the late 1990’s, ECF standards, now under the auspices of standards organization OASIS, through the OASIS LegalXML Electronic Court Filing TC (Technical Committee), have grown into a full-blown specification that includes data definitions, schema, document specifications, messaging, business rules, and more.

In addition, the ECF standards, after first spawning more “global” justice, government, and universal standards, now elegantly fit within and thus are able to leverage the far more wide-ranging National Information Exchange Model (NIEM) and Global Reference Architecture (GRA) standards. Thus ECF standards not only provide a solid basis for eFiling, they provide the mechanism for broader, smoother, more extensive integration and interaction with the world within which the courts function.

Today, most procurements for eFiling, whether from a vendor or by way of development, require that the system must conform to the OASIS ECF specification, of which the most current version is ECF 4.01.  Recently IJIS, a 503(c)(3) non-profit organization providing data sharing expertise to governmental bodies, has made the IJIS Springboard Certification tools available for eFiling systems, with which courts and developers can test their systems for conformance with the OASIS ECF standard.

Why do ECF standards matter? As Jim Cabral, longtime member and current chair of the LegalXML ECF TC, observes, an E-Filing system must 1) Collect data and documents; 2) Satisfy court rules, and 3) Communicate progress. He goes on to say, “The full benefit of E-Filing is only achievable if the data and documents can be integrated into the court record with little or no intervention…. Integration between E-Filing systems and services requires common technical and functional standards for data and document interoperability….”

Viewing the standards saga as a Lord of the Rings type epic, ECF 1.0 would have been the Hobbit – really a “prequel”. On that scale, ECF 4 is probably the end of Book One – The Fellowship of the Ring. We’ve come a long, long ways. But in many respects, the journey is really only starting. In fact it may be more like Game of Thrones: It just gets more complicated and involved.

That’s because the real challenges lay at the business level. While different courts (and even different parts of the same court) share numerous similarities and commonalities of practice, the differences are still myriad and deep. Moreover, there are an infinite number of ways to implement compliant systems, depending on the types of strengths and features desired. For these reason, the OASIS ECF specification is necessarily general, flexible, and extensible, so that each court can modify and extend it to meet its particular needs, while still remaining compliant.

The down side is that not all the needs of all courts can be fully addressed at once. For instance, while major case types (civil, criminal, dissolution of marriage, etc.) are included, others are not. Likewise, while the specifications exist to electronically serve parties already on a case, original service remains outside the specification’s current scope. Payment processing creates a lot of extra work, so inclusion could yield big benefits. ECF 4.0 provides support for appellate cases; and future releases may extend to non-case related filings and administrative court matters.

The LegalXML TC is currently working on ECF 5.0, which Cabral describes as “evolutionary; not revolutionary”.   5.0 seeks to fill some gaps and add some much-desired functionality.   Specifications for Children, Youth, and Family Services matters will be included. Also, what Cabral calls “Miniature Original Service”, where original service can be made electronically on Registered Agents, is being worked on, as well as Scheduling of an Initial Hearing.

The OASIS ECF standards are open and public. The Committee hopes to have a draft of ECF 5.0 ready for public comment by the Court Technology Conference (CTC) in September, 2015. The Committee invites and seeks ideas, comments, and feedback through their public site and email.

Finally, Cabral solicits the engagement of the court community in proactively addressing the business and policy questions that the standards-setting efforts make manifest. The desire for original eService provides a good example. Even service on Registered Agents through eService will require rule, procedural, and possibly statutory changes. Expect such change proposals to be politically fraught.

The ECF standards journey has been and will continue to be long but essential. Courts will be well advised to watch, adopt, and get involved with adopting and modifying ECF standards now and into the foreseeable (and unforeseeable) future.

Coming up next: Blog 3 of 10: eFiling Blog Series – Funding

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Additional OASIS ECF 4.0 Resources:

7 Steps to Electronic Filing with Electronic Court Filing 4.0

ECF Quick Start (Video)