Technology has crept into all areas of life, and the courts are no exception. Using the Case Management/Electronic Case Files (CM/ECF) system, attorneys and litigants can submit paperwork quickly and easily online to the courts, judges, other attorneys, litigants, and clerks. Both federal and district courts use electronic filing systems for most paperwork now.
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What is e-Filing and How Does it Work?
Electronic filing of court documents allows a user to log into a private area of the court’s website and upload motions, pleadings petitions, and documents through an Internet connection.
Uploading files makes it easier on the user, not having to produce paper documents and file them in person and on the court because they go directly to the person who needs to receive them and process them.
More courts are requiring lawyers and citizens to file electronically although paper copies must also be kept. Before filing, you must create an account or request that an account is set up for you. Logging into a private system ensures security when uploading your sensitive documents. In many cases by filing electronically, the courts waive the filing fees, and the user can save money.
Technical Standards of e-Filing
A subcommittee of the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards (OASIS), called the LegalXML Electronic Court Filing Technical Committee has developed a collection of standards for all electronic filing documents. The standards are XML-based, and the specifications help courts to set up their e-filing systems safely, securely and efficiently. To promote these standards, OASIS LegalXML ECF published their 7 Steps to Electronic Filing with Electronic Court Filing 4.0.
The technical standards required of each court district may be different. Many courts publish their requirements online. For example, some list the type of hardware and software you need to access their system. Others require specific security measures to be in place before uploading files. The documents themselves must mirror the paper versions regarding content, formatting, and standards. However, they may offer different file formats for you to submit. The most common is a non-editable PDF file format.
Additionally, any attorneys or users that wish to use these systems must first apply for an account and be granted access. They also require specific standards for passwords and usernames. Keeping the court’s online system safe and sound, is their first concern. Maintaining consistency and quality standards is their second priority.
What is the Impact of e-Filing on the Justice System?
Although the transition was probably quite a hurdle, and pretty stressful at first, e-filing has had a significant impact on the efficiency of the justice system. Now lawyers and court representatives can share documents with multiples entities due to the Global Justice XML (GHXML). Since each court system defines different parameters for submitted documents, the e-filing process accommodates this and formats it for everyone.
E-filing has saved the courts money by streamlining the process of protecting, sharing and electronically signing documents. Instead of waiting for a human being to locate a paper document, make copies and disseminate to all parties, the record can be shared instantly among various people with a few clicks of the mouse.
Additionally, paper records required an elaborate filing system with each document assigned a case and docket number. This process is now automated with e-filing, and everyone can search for, find and view multiple documents within seconds.
Technology has enabled courts and other legal entities within the justice system to share files quickly and easily, search and find cases and documents and save money by automating manual tasks.
Some additions benefits of courts moving to an e-filing system are:
- Less paper is used, and therefore it is environmentally friendly.
- It is much faster to find and retrieve files and documents.
- It is easier to maintain an online system.
- Saves money by not having to pay for physical storage space and supplies.
- Integration with court calendars and scheduling.
Although OASIS has determined standards for file exchange, metadata and file formats of the system, each individual court that integrates their records with ECF needs to draft a detailed policy on how they will use the system, who can access the system, how document exchange will occur and other things like privacy policies, digital signatures and messaging.
With anything new or technical there can be a downside to using them. For the courts, these issues could potentially affect security, privacy, and efficiency. Older or inexperienced users may have difficulty using online, e-filing systems or be unfamiliar with accepted file formats.
Each court has control over their own system and may not follow the standards set forth by OASIS which could complicate matters by making their data less compatible to integrate with others. Lawyers, litigants, and other justice systems may be affected by this incompatibility.
Overall the move to a more technically advanced system is an improvement for the courts, but it is not without some pitfalls and stumbling blocks along the way. Technology is always changing, and these systems should improve further with time.