E-Filing Coming to all of Florida

If you ever bought something online, chances are you’ll have little trouble using the Florida courts’ new e-filing system.

Finishing touches are still being put on the new e-filing software by the Florida Association of Court Clerks, but the basics are in place.

E-filing, using the new statewide portal being run jointly by the courts and the clerks, will be open for business January 1.

Here’s a look at how the system will operate, courtesy of Melvin Cox, IT director for the FACC. But first, Cox gave some caveats for lawyers and other users to keep in mind:

• The system will be operational on January 1, but it will be voluntary to use it. At some point, not yet determined, electronic filing could become mandatory.

• For the first 90 days, in case there are glitches, electronic filers also will be required to file a copy of their paperwork “manually,” or the old-fashioned way at the courthouse. A tip to help your local clerk: Put a note on your paper filing indicating it also has been filed electronically.

• Standards for electronic filing were set by the Supreme Court last year in Administrative Order 09-30 — something Cox urged every e-filing lawyer to read. For example, lawyers are allowed to use electronic signatures instead of an electronic image of a handwritten signature on their filings. But section 7.3 of the order provides that, “Original documents (Death Certificates, etc.) or those that contain original signatures such as affidavits, deeds, mortgages, and wills must be filed manually until the court has determined the digital format by which these issues are addressed.”

• The portal will accept documents in PDF, Word, and WordPerfect formats. Documents submitted in Word and WordPerfect will automatically be converted to searchable and read-only PDF documents by the portal software before they are received by the clerk, to prevent any chance of the documents being altered.

When it is open, links to the portal are expected to be on various court and clerk websites, as well as the Bar’s website.

First-time users will have to register with the portal. Cox said the sign-up page has a number of standard questions; those with an asterisk must be filled out. Bar members will also be required to provide their Bar numbers. Users also must choose a user name and password. And they are required to provide a primary e-mail address and have the option of adding a secondary address. They will be asked standard security questions, such as the name of a pet, mother’s maiden name, and the like.

When that’s done and submitted, the filing system will generate an e-mail to the registering lawyer, which verifies the submitted e-mail address is correct. Clicking on a link in that e-mail completes the registration process.

Now the registered user is ready to file documents. Going back to the initial page, all he or she has to do is sign in with the right user name and password. That will take the attorney to the “My Filings” page. Clicking on the “Filing Options” button will produce a drop-down menu with the choices of opening a new case or filing a document in an existing case.

Cox said each choice made from there dictates the next set of options, as the successive screens walk the user through the filing process.

For example, when the user selects a county in which to file a new case, the next pull-down menu will display the types of e-filings accepted in that jurisdiction. Cox explained that although five areas are approved for e-filing as of January 1 — circuit civil, county civil, probate, juvenile, and domestic relations — not all counties will be able to accept filings in all five divisions. As more counties join the e-filing system and more divisions are added, those will automatically be updated on the portal.

Similarly, when a lawyer picks the type of filing to make, the system will offer the available options. For example, if the user selects a probate filing, the next menu will list the various types of probate filings. Choosing “Formal Administration” will produce a “Sub Type” pull-down menu that will list choices for testate or intestate administration for Florida or non-Florida residents.

The next screen lets the user fill in the parties for the case. An option here, Cox said, is the lawyer can provide an e-mail address and indicate that a party — such as the lawyer’s client — should be copied with the filing. That party will get an e-mail with the filing.

Once the parties are filled in, the lawyer will be directed to a screen for attaching documents. This is, Cox said, like attaching documents to an e-mail. A browse button lets the lawyer peruse files on his or her computer and pick the ones to attach. Multiple documents can be attached to one filing, Cox said, by hitting the “Add Document” button as needed. But all the documents must pertain to the case. Documents for a different case should not be attached or the filing may be rejected.

Next up is a payment screen. The filing fee and any other costs will be displayed here. Users will be presented with options to pay with a credit card (MasterCard, American Express, and Discover only), pay with an electronic check, or file a request for a fee waiver.

The final screen gives the user a chance to look over everything before hitting the submit button. One feature Cox proudly points to is that the portal will place a time stamp on the electronic document when a submission is made. (A second time stamp will note when it is accepted by the clerk.)

After sending, a screen will be displayed confirming that the document or documents have been submitted. Cox said there are two other confirmations, as well. A message will be sent to the submitter’s e-mail account listed when he or she set up the account. And there will be a line on the “My Filings” page that comes up when a user logs in. That page allows the user to see all of his or her filing activity between chosen dates. The new filing will be shown there.

When the clerk accepts the filings (assuming everything was correct) the “My Filing” page will also reflect that the clerk’s office has accepted the filing. If it’s a new case, it will be assigned a case number and the “Completion Date” will show when it was accepted by the clerk. The attorney will also get another e-mail confirming the acceptance.

If the filing is not accepted, there will be a red “Rejected” notation in the “My Filings” listing and an e-mail notice of the rejection. The clerks anticipate some common problems will include lawyers mistakenly filing cases in the wrong county, payment problems, or attaching documents to the wrong case.

While that’s the basic filing procedure, Cox said lawyers do have some other options.

When registering with the portal, lawyers can “affiliate” with their law firm. That, Cox said, allows a firm administrator to access all cases filed by firm lawyers. That administrator may also block attorneys who have left the firm and add those who have joined.

Attorneys also may choose to have their financial information — credit card numbers or electronic checking account numbers — saved in the system. Cox said the system uses the same security software and systems that online retailers and others use to protect credit card and other sensitive information. Those who elect to have that information saved in the system will have a simpler process for paying filing fees and other costs. Those who are nervous about having that information stored in the system will have the option of providing the credit card and account numbers as needed with various filings, he said.

The “My Filings” function on the site also gives lawyers a way to manage and track their court activities. Cox said lawyers can list all of their pending cases, which can help track and manage their workload.

The FACC is working on an online video tutorial about using the e-filing system. The News will list that site when it is available.

Even as the system is gearing up, Cox said future improvements are already being examined. Those include online access to simple e-forms for court-related activities and a possible “A2J” (Access to Justice) function for nonlawyers filing documents. That, Cox said, will be a “TurboTax”-type system that asks pro se litigants a series of questions and walks them through the process. When they are done, the software will automatically fill out the proper documents and do the filing. He also expects other refinements, both to streamline the system and help lawyers and judges.

“Software never ends,” Cox said.

REF: The Florida Bar News www.floridabar.org