XML in Electronic Court Filing
With over 90 million cases filed each year in the United States, electronic filing is emerging as a proven alternative to conventional case filing for courts and litigants alike. Increasingly, court clerks, judges, and attorneys are trying out the services in a growing number of pilot programs which courts are offering their constituents.
"Electronic filing is the process of transmitting documents and other court information to the court through an electronic medium, rather than on paper."Guidebook to Electronic Court Filing
National Center for State Courts
Electronic filing works by replacing the traditional method of filing, serving, storing, and retrieving court documents with a more efficient electronic process. Instead of duplicating, packaging, and manually delivering copies of documents to the court and service parties, you send them electronically over the Internet. Here's how a document is e-filed:
- Log on to the vendor/provider's web site
- Select case and documents to be filed
- Select filing and service parties from a centrally-maintained list
- Select document from your computer
- Click a button to deliver documents immediately
- Receive proof of filing and service electronically
Documents are then stored electronically. Any time a judge, attorney, or other party on the case needs a copy of the document, they conveniently retrieve the document from a web site. The service is always available, although cases filed after court work hours are time-stamped the following business day. The court can now move documents around in a matter of minutes as opposed to hours in the conventional mode.
Mapping the right information to the right parties presents a challenge uniquely suited to an XML-based solution. Courts require both the filing or the document stating the plaintiff's case (pleadings) and the necessary supporting information such as information supporting submission to the dockets: case summaries, case details, criminal or civil charges and court verdicts, plaintiff, defendant, and other parties as necessary. Each court may define these requirements to suit its specific needs.
Court staff involvement varies from court to court. Many courts are relying on established vendors to build solutions, while others are building e-file applications in-house. New Jersey, due to the centralized nature of their court system, built their e-file system using in-house staff. New Jersey's system is built with Visual Basic. Most courts are heavily involved in the business process definition phase and requirements definition.
In 1998 the Georgia Court Automation Commission (GCAC) funded an E-filing pilot. The pilot sought to support not only filing within one county, but across county lines in differing courts where interoperability would be an issue. Once interoperability became a key objective, GCAC turned to XML to support that interoperability. As of August 29, 2001, two vendors have successfully completed and tested end-to-end electronic court filing systems using their implementation and interpretation of an XML-based solution. Another vendor completed an end-to-end filing system test, but not using an XML-based solution.
Another by-product of the GCAC E-filing pilot was the non-profit LegalXML (see www.legalxml.org). This group is gathering together all the stakeholders in the e-file community to carve out standards for use in both the style of document submissions and the supporting information that must accompany the filing. The GCAC pilot successfully used LegalXML's 1.0 DTD standard for the document submissions.
LegalXML's DTD is designed to include all data elements needed by any court. However, any court may limit, as a matter of local policy, the data it will accept in an electronic filing. In particular, a court may refuse to accept:
- more than one filing in a single submission
- a pleading that initiates a case
- payments associated with a filing
- hypertext links to document residing elsewhere
The Document DTD contains specifications for the following data elements:
- White space treatment
- Transmission encapsulation
- Legal Envelope: To, From, Reply to, CC, BCC, Memo, Data Integrity, Payment Information, Authentication
- Creation: Data and time document created
- CourtFiling: Filing (Actors, Filing Information, Lead Document), Confirmation (Actors, Time Stamp, Information), Query response
- Change History
DTDs for both the Document and the Court Filing information are available at legalxml.org.
The well designed e-file system will support multiple document submissions: word processed, images, ASCII text, XML, or even a URL pointing to a document somewhere else. Also, specific court requirements may necessitate a two-DTD approach, where the Document DTD is separate from the Filing DTD.
Legal Community Response to E-file
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Attorneys, judges, and clerks seem to be enjoying real benefits from the system. Alex Vincent, with Tom Wilson, Esq., says, "By court order, use of the e-filing system has been mandatory for all cases on the Civil I docket in the DC Superior Court as of May 1, 2001, even for those cases pending before that date. What I like about e-file is that it removes the uncertainties, time, and expense associated with getting a courier down to Superior Court by 4:00 p.m., the hour the clerk's office closes, and to effect service on one's party opponent. With e-file, we have up to and including 11:59 p.m. on the date of the filing deadline to file papers; both filing and service can be done directly from the attorney's personal computer via the Internet."
Mr. Vincent offers two drawbacks. First, many personnel in the clerk's office in the Superior Court have not (or at least had not as of a couple of months ago) been briefed on how the system works. The clerk's staff are not able to readily provide details regarding how, when, or if motions are processed. Second, the system has had trouble converting WordPerfect documents into PDF format for posting on the system. The vendor offers a work-around and future application upgrades are scheduled to fix the bug.
The State of New Jersey offers litigants the Judicial Electronic Filing Imaging System. Started in January of 2001, the system has taken in over 8,900 cases and averages around 350 cases daily out of a daily potential of 750. Unlike the District of Columbia Superior Court, the New Jersey court e-file service is optional. The New Jersey system offers automated docketing which
- drastically reduces data entry,
- minimizes clerical errors,
- centralizes operations,
- improves workflow, and
- maintains the integrity of the mainframe docketing system.
Many US Courts offer e-file services through a pilot program which allows filers the choice between manual filing and electronic. During the pilot period, filers are offered limited on-site training as well as on-line help. Most PCs sold today meet the minimum requirements for browser version, processor, OS, modem, etc. With the client-side plug-in downloaded to the filer's PC, e-filing can begin.
In Prince Georges County, MD, the county circuit court concluded an e-filing pilot in 1997 and did not roll out the service county-wide. Although the pilot was successful, the system worked, and the sponsoring Judge was satisfied the cost benefits were proven, the court chose to discontinue the program. Prince Georges County chose not to move ahead because most attorneys frequenting the court liked the regular visits to the courts and saw the new e-filing system as a threat to their personal contact with the court.
As e-filing becomes stronger in the market and the technology advances to respectable service levels, more and more courts will be presented with this proven cost-savings service. E-filing will only gain strength and enhance its position as a valuable resource for courts and their stakeholders.
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