Florida courts to ditch paper and go electronic

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In courthouses across Florida, shelves are lined with bulging files of legal documents, reports Jim Saunders of the News Service of Florida.

But changes released Thursday by the Florida Supreme Court may lead to paper court files going the way of phone books and faxes in the increasingly e-world.

Justices unanimously approved rule changes that will require almost all court documents to be filed electronically. The changes, which have been extensively studied by Florida Bar rules committees and other groups, will gradually take effect by the end of 2013.

“The proposed amendments represent a significant and important step toward our goal of a fully electronic court system by transitioning from permissive to mandatory electronic filing,” Justice Barbara Pariente wrote for the court in a document approving the changes.

Parts of the state and federal court systems have already taken steps toward ditching the old paper-heavy way of doing business. The Florida Supreme Court and federal courts, for example, make copies of filings available online to the public — though fees are charged for accessing many federal court documents from outside of courthouse computers.

The Supreme Court said a number of Florida trial courts, as well as courts such as the 1st District Court of Appeal in Tallahassee, have moved forward with electronic records. But the new changes would essentially move from a system that permits filing electronic records to one that requires it.

The filing requirements will take effect April 1, 2013, in parts of trial courts that handle civil, probate, small-claims and family-law cases. They will take effect Oct. 1, 2013, in parts of trial courts that handle criminal, traffic and juvenile cases. Changes in electronic-filing procedures that affect the Supreme Court and district courts of appeal will take effect Oct. 1, 2012.

In a related move, justices also announced Thursday requirements for attorneys to serve legal documents to each other by e-mail.

Justices said they will phase in the court-filing requirements to make sure local clerks are able to accept and maintain electronic records. Also, it said state attorneys, public defenders and regional counsels, which accept cases that public defenders can’t handle, are under budget pressures that limit their ability to upgrade technology and train employees.

“The new rules and amendments to existing rules we adopt represent an important step in this ongoing effort to change the ways that the judicial system operates from a paper world to an electronic world,” justices said in requiring the changes. “In that effort, the Court keeps at the forefront that our court system must be accessible, fair, and effective.”

Some attorneys, however, expressed concerns as the changes were being formulated. Those concerns, which were submitted in written comments, ranged from a preference for paper to worries about electronic security.

“I would respectfully note that I can count on one hand how many times mail has been lost, but I would need to use both hands and take off my shoes to start counting how many times emails have been lost,” Sarasota attorney Kurt E. Lee wrote at one point.

Justices included limited exemptions to the filing requirements, such as for people who represent themselves in cases. But the court pointed to several potential benefits in going electronic and said the Legislature also has backed such a move.

“As the Legislature has indicated, implementation of an electronic filing process should reduce costs, increase timeliness in the processing of cases, and provide the judiciary with case-related information to allow for improved case management,” the justices said in the document.

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.