A weak economy and falling tax revenues have caused significant deficits in the budgets of many state and local governments. The National Conference of State Legislatures (search) reports that some states are now entering their third straight year of budget shortfalls.
In such an environment, state agencies face the daunting task of maintaining service levels -- while administering serious budget cuts.
To no one's surprise, the judicial system also has come face-to-face with "Grim Reaper" type cost-cutting challenges that have been imposed on numerous state agencies. Some courts have been forced to lay off staff, reduce operating hours and, in extreme situations, even close whole courthouses. While judges and dedicated court personnel have made impressive efforts to fulfill their obligations as stewards of the judicial system, the pressures on the system are growing.
The combination of declining resources and increasing caseloads means that courts need to find ways to do more with less. My experience over 18 years as a judge has convinced me that the answer lies at least in part with the electronic filing and service of legal documents, or e-filing (search).
I use the term e-filing broadly, to encompass everything from emailed correspondence between courts and law offices to full-scale online document filing and serving. E-filing provides a unique solution to problems of shortened or limited court hours by allowing litigants to file documents from home, office or vacation hideaway, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. If e-filing were utilized on a large scale basis, a court could get by on a smaller staff or reallocate resources, because fewer clerk hours would be needed to receive, process and distribute case documents.
E-filing is now gaining nationwide momentum. Courts in numerous states, the District of Columbia and several federal districts have successfully implemented e-filing systems. Of course, courts making a transition to e-filing will face some hurdles, especially resistance to change and fear of technology. But, there is some good news -- resistance to change and fear of technology is not a permanent obstacle.
Excellent examples of this are the extent to which computers and cell phones have become indispensable parts of everyday existence, and filing tax returns and making airline reservations over the internet have become common events. These events and others forecast that electronic filing will become the norm. Society has accepted the concept of transmitting documents electronically, be it from home-to-home or law office to courthouse. Indeed, attorneys and court staff in my jurisdiction have overcome initial concerns and have realized the benefits of increased control over the process, lower litigation costs and improved access to information.
In addition to the more efficient use of resources, e-filing helps to address another major challenge for the courts -- dealing with the tons of paper produced by modern litigation. Since we implemented e-filing two years ago, we have seen the electronic equivalent of more than 675,000 pages e-filed and served online. The manual process of distributing this volume of paper has been reduced to a simple point and click of a computer mouse.
The e-filing process helps courts and law firms streamline their activities. The public benefits from the more efficient use of public resources. And, for self-represented litigants who may not be able to afford an attorney, most courts make accommodations with public access terminals at the courthouse.
Financial realities drive the search for new ways to maintain government service. The good news is that a number of courts have already pioneered a solution that is now ready for the mainstream.
The court in which I work, the Superior Court of the District of Columbia (search), was one of the first courts on the east coast to implement e-filing. For our project, we chose an e-filing application that is provided by a private vendor at no charge to the court. The vendor collects a fee from law firms and litigants when they file and serve documents. During the term of the project, the system has not been victimized by any security breach, and has been reliable and available around the clock.
There are other systems, some vendor supplied and maintained, and others that are maintained by the court's IT division, providing various levels of capability, from e-file Lite to e-file Platinum. I have no doubt that there is an available system for nearly every court to start its own project now.
What was once used to manage a few special case types is now available for a host of case types from domestic relations to complex litigation because there are now plenty of models for a court to follow. After learning the system, the public will find that the process of e-filing is almost as easy as sending a quick e-mail message to a friend.
Courts that implement e-filing now are helping to lead the way to the future, a new era of government efficiency and service.
Judge Herbert B. Dixon, Jr. is an 18-year member of the Superior Court of the District of Columbia, and a former Presiding Judge of both the court's Civil Division and the Multi-Door Dispute Resolution Division. He is Chair of Superior Court's Electronic Filing pilot project and Co-Chair of a new Electronic Filing Process Standards ("EFPS") Committee of the National Conference of State Trial Judges.