Judicial system goes electronic with transition to e-filing [Ocala Star-Banner, Fla. :: ]
(Ocala Star-Banner (FL) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) April 18--In 2013, 61,402 cases were filed at the Marion County Judicial Center.
Assuming each case consisted of 50 sheets of paper, the sheets, if placed end to end, would stretch from Ocala to New Orleans. But that paper trail is beginning to recede as the Florida judicial system enters the digital age, where case files will now be housed in an online portal rather than on shelves collecting dust.
Attorneys are now allowed to electronically file their documents to the clerk's system 24 hours a day, seven days a week. And, while only members of the Florida Bar currently can use the portal, the system eventually will expand and allow the public to access records from the courthouse or their homes.
This would decrease some of the 40,000-plus boxes of clerk records and County Commission documents that Clerk of the Court David Ellspermann now houses in storage. And, less to store also means less to shred when a file reaches its expiration date as laid out by state law.
"Digitizing documents just eliminates those broad costs," Ellspermann said.
It also decreases the amount of courthouse traffic; if cases can be viewed online, that means fewer interruptions in the clerk's office.
Marion County is part of a nationwide transition.
In 1979, the Florida Supreme Court adopted rules authorizing an early version of transmitting court documents electronically and amended them in 1996 to keep up with a changing world. A 2009 law required each clerk of court to implement an e-filing process to reduce judicial costs.
The statewide e-filing portal opened in January 2011 and by June of that year 16 counties, including Marion, became the first to set in place a filing system, according to a 2011 report from the Florida Courts E-filing Authority, an independent government body that oversees the statewide filing portal.
The Florida Supreme Court joined the portal on Feb. 27, 2013, and by April 1, 2013, the day e-filing for civil cases became mandatory, all 67 clerk's offices across the state were connected.
In the first month of e-filing in 2011, 229 documents were e-filed in the state, according to the authority. At the end of 2013, 5,125,532 documents had been e-filed since the portals inception two years earlier.
At the Marion County courthouse, attorneys had already been practicing e-filing before the mandatory deadlines, while also turning in hard copies of their documents. So when the deadlines hit, the system was not new to many local attorneys.
"From my perspective, it really didn't create much of a burp in the e-filing because of that," said Dovie McCoy, civil courts manager for the Marion County courthouse. "It was just a matter of making the transition and just getting used to not having that hard copy."
For 2011, 102 circuit civil e-filings were received by the Marion County clerk's office. That number rose to 3,200 for 2012 and 57,253 for 2013. Four months into 2014, 20,004 circuit civil filings have already been entered.
On Oct. 1, 2013, e-filing from criminal cases hit its mandatory filing deadline.
"Instead of griping about the change, I'm embracing it," said Public Defender Michael Graves during a recent professionalism conference where e-filing was one of the main topics. He called it the greatest change since the invention of the typewriter.
"This is one of those seismic shifts in the way we practice law," said State Attorney Brad King, speaking at the same conference. "It's going to make what we do different for all time."
King said the process might have been easier for younger attorneys who could easily understand and embrace the new technology.
"I think, generally speaking, it has made things easier," said private defense attorney Tania Alavi of the Ocala law firm Alavi, Bird & Pozzuto, P.A. She did point out, however, that attorneys have to be very careful when uploading documents to be sure no sensitive information, such as Social Security numbers, are contained in the pages.
The implementation of e-filing has not been free in terms of cost or employee time at the courthouse. On the clerk's side, the information technology department purchased 151 new computers and upgraded others, increased its Internet bandwidth from 10 megabits per second to 20 megabits per second and upgraded infrastructure, such as adding "virtual" servers and increasing space allocation for the storage area network.
The e-filing implementation comes at a time when the clerk's office is converting to a new case management system called Clericus. Once that is done, likely this fall, public access should begin soon after. Once Ellspermann's office implements Clericus, the court will be able to apply through the Office of the State Courts Administrator for approval of the electronic records access system and then apply to provide online access to the public after successfully completing a 90-day monitoring period.
"I'd say it's right around the corner," Ellspermann said of public access.
The implementation cost is expected to be around $495,373, which will come from a part of the recording fee received by the clerk.
The courthouse also hired a new employee in the criminal division to assist with e-filing.
As for privacy concerns on the clerk's end, the court system is backed up nightly, so files are repeatedly saved and the clerk's system is also built to withstand a major disaster, ensuring records will be kept safe. There are established guidelines in the Florida Rules of Judicial Administration as to what information must remain confidential, such as records involving juveniles, medical reports and Social Security, bank account numbers and other financial information.
"Those are existing rules that filers should be abiding by and that cuts down on risky information in the court file," said Kathryn Glynn, chief deputy of courts for the Marion County clerk's office.
Although the changes will drastically reduce the amount of physical documents in the courthouse, the white sheets won't disappear completely.
"There will be less paper, but it's not going to go away," Ellspermann said.
Staff writer Fred Hiers contributed to this story. Contact April Warren at 867-4065 or email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @ajtwarren.
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