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From The Third Branch -- February 1996
The U.S. District Court in the Northern District of Ohio went "live" on January 2, 1996, with a first-of-its-kind electronic filing program. The court is pitting the program against a staggering maritime asbestos caseload-over 5,000 cases per year, with 10,000 pleadings filed weekly and, typically, 100 different defendants per case. Clerk of Court Geri Smith described the situation at the court, "Lawyers were bringing in six boxes of filings at a time. We were committed to a 24-hour turn around on docketing, but we were living with an 8-month backlog of over 250,000 pleadings. And just before the first wave of asbestos cases hit, our staff had been cut back. Staff volunteered to stay nights and weekends to get the work done, but we knew there had to be a better way to handle these cases. That's when we called the Office of Automation and Technology at the Administrative Office."
The court had tried streamlining the paper flow, and was able to cut 30- 40 percent of the paper. It was still overwhelming. Smith felt the technology was there to help, and electronic filing was the key. Gary Bockweg and his Technology Enhancement Office team from the AO, who went out to Cleveland, Ohio, to assess the situation, agreed. "Confined to one large set of cases in a limited jurisdiction, it was attractive as a pilot project in electronic filing," said Bockweg. The Judicial Conference's Committee on Automation and Technology subsequently approved a pilot project in the district.
By court order, as of January 2, 1996, any attorney filing a document in a new maritime asbestos case in the Northern District of Ohio must do so using the electronic filing system. The system effectively makes the attorney the docketing and filing clerk. To file electronic documents, such as responses to complaints, which are among the highest volume documents in these cases, the attorney prepares the document on a word processor, saves it in portable format (PDF), and submits it to the court via the Internet. A PDF file is used because it is much smaller than an image file and is fully text searchable. As the attorney submits the document, a menu provides guidance through the docket entry process. It's all automatic. The court or parties print the PDF document only if the case goes to trial and the judge requests a paper copy. Until then, it stays on the computer.
Said Bockweg, "All the attorney needs for electronic filing is a Macintosh or a personal computer capable of running Windows, some off- the-shelf software costing about $200, and a subscription to an Internet service. We require brand name software now for compatibility reasons, but we won't always. The cost of entry is not high. Before we began, we did a phone survey of about 40 law firms, and they all had or could easily get this level of automation."
In the maritime asbestos cases, approximately 50 attorneys account for the bulk of documents, although more than 400 attorneys are involved at various times. Training seminars were held for Ohio bar members and their response to the electronic filing project ranged from accepting to enthusiastic. For their benefit, the test system for the Asbestos Electronic Document Filing System has been set-up. Attorneys have an opportunity to practice before running through the actual docketing process.
Of course there are issues that continue to arise due to the very nature of electronic filing. For instance, how does an attorney sign an electronic document? A court order says that the act of logging on and entering a password-all necessary to submit an electronic file constitutes a signature. And will lawyers submit their cases correctly? Quality assurance spot-checking by the court will keep track. Response time on the Internet might become a concern sometime in the future but according to Bockweg, if it does, the court can fall back to its own phone lines. Security is always a consideration, and there is a security "firewall," which shields the courts' computers from direct access from outside.
Last September, the Judicial Conference approved amendments to the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure allowing district courts to accept filings by electronic means as long as they are consistent with the technical standards, if any, that the Conference establishes. Companion rules were also approved for bankruptcy and appellate courts. These amendments are currently pending at the Supreme Court and are scheduled to become effective December 1, 1996.
While it has implemented the features needed to manage maritime asbestos cases, the pilot system does not provide all the case management features currently available through the Integrated Case Management System, and it was not intended as an alternative to the case management systems currently used in the courts. But the pilot program shows that the concept and the tools for electronic filing work, and it is helping the Ohio court solve a major problem.
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