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Electronic Filing

The latest buzzword in the judicial system is "electronic filing." What is electronic filing? In its simplest terms, electronic filing is the filing of information in an electronic format. These digitized documents can then be processed, tracked, and organized through the various court systems.

Development of Electronic Filing

If you ask 10 different courts about their electronic filing system, you will probably receive 10 different descriptions and interpretations of electronic filing. The earliest version of e-filing was merely the receipt and transmission of documents via fax. It was a simple method of getting documents to or from a court without postage or courier expenses. The next generation of e-filing is the scanning and storage of electronic images of documents. Some courts manually enter data from the scanned documents to be incorporated into a database.

Next came the use of the Internet and e-mail transmission for the filing of briefs, either through court-developed or vendor-supported programs. The development of user-friendly Web-based forms incorporating XML (eXtensible markup language) has brought greater flexibility and some standardization to electronic filing.

XML is a markup language which is text-based and therefore quickly readable by computers under all platforms. HTML, the markup language used to create most Web pages, is another example of a markup specification. XML consists of codes in the text of a document that contain information about the data. It is designed to improve the functionality of the Web by providing more flexible and adaptable information identification. By capturing qualifying attributes of the data, courts can automate the processing of incoming electronic documents and share data with other agencies such as the department of corrections and law enforcement. Uniform standards for XML commands are still in the developmental stage. Until these standards are accepted and implemented, there will be no true sharing of information between agencies and court systems.

Status of Electronic Filing

Today the term "electronic filing" encompasses several different components such as the electronic transmission of documents, case management integration, financial information integration, integration with the current paper flow, jurisdictional and regional diversity to allow courts in different jurisdictions or cities to interface, dispute resolution support, and litigation community input to allow all stakeholders access to the electronic record. These functions can be handled in-house, by private vendors, or a combination of both.

There are almost as many electronic filing systems in the state court system as there are states. The National Consortium for National Case Management Automation Functional Standards Project has published a number of Functional Standards in order to formalize technology issues and to help state courts more effectively use their financial and staffing resources to develop a state-of-the-art computer system. Some of these standards have been approved while others are still in the comment process.

The federal government has elected to base its electronic filing on .pdf documents. These are readable by using free Adobe Acrobat software. All federal courts are scheduled to be participating in electronic filing and case management by July 2004. The Judicial Conference of the U.S. Courts has extended the date for inclusion of transcripts in the federal court's electronic filing system except for a few voluntary pilot project courts to determine the financial impact on court reporters' income as a result of electronic filing.

Incorporating the Transcript

The way court reporters' transcripts are incorporated into the electronic filing system varies. Some courts are including an electronic form, whether that be ASCII, .pdf, or some other format for downloading by the general public. Other courts are restricting access to the parties only. Sometimes there is a fee involved, but the court receives the income from downloading the transcripts. Some courts are putting the title, appearance, index, and certificate pages only with contact information to obtain copies from the court reporter. One court is in the process of incorporating a link to Exemplaris to comply with the electronic filing requirements for transcripts.

Access to Information

A subject of great debate is who should have access to information once it is obtained in an electronic format. Some argue that the Freedom of Information Act requires the public to have access to all court records. Another group is working diligently to protect the privacy rights of individuals and limit access to electronic records. Various committees are studying these issues on both national and local levels.

The federal government has elected to adopt a redaction policy that gives parties a right to request certain information be redacted from transcripts (social security numbers, minor children's names, bank accounts, home addresses). The Judicial Conference has adopted the following redaction policy:

"Within 5 business days of the filing by the court reporter/transcriber of the official transcript with the clerk's office pursuant to 28 U.S.C. Section 753, each party shall inform the court, by filing a notice of redaction with the clerk, of the party's intent to redact personal data identifiers from the electronic transcript of the court proceeding. ... If no such notice is filed within the allotted time, the court will assume redaction of personal data identifiers from the transcripts is not necessary, and the transcript may be electronically available at the close of the fifth business day, unless the court, for good cause related to the application of the Judicial Conference policy on privacy and public access to electronic case files, finds that the transcript should not be available electronically for up to a period of 60 days."