SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – As California moves to modernize the way cases are filed and stored in its courts, the judiciary has opened the field of competition to companies that are vying to electronically fill jobs formerly done by clerks at the filing counter, who would then take on other tasks.
Last week, the California Judicial Council put out a request for proposals seeking e-filing managers that will act as online counter clerks, taking the filing of court documents from paper and rubber stamps to what is supposed to be a streamlined online system.
Paper filing traditionally requires a runner to deliver a new complaint to the clerk’s counter at the courthouse. A counter clerk then takes in the filing, date-stamps it, checks to see the proper filing fee has been attached, gives a receipt and drops the new filings in a bin. Traditionally, the press can then review the new filings in the bin. From there the new filings go to a different set of clerks who docket them and put them in file folders, destined for a judge’s chambers or the records room.
E-filing mimics that long-established system, where the e-file service provider is like the runner or bicycle courier that delivers the filing to the court. The e-file manager is like the counter clerk, taking in the e-filing and issuing a receipt. Human clerks still process the cases from that point on, serving much the same function as docket clerks in a paper system, and “accept” the new filing into the local court’s software system for managing cases.
The Judicial Council’s request for proposals, known as an RFP, has been a year in the making, rising from the ashes of the Court Case Management System – a statewide software project intended to link California’s 58 trial courts. Electronic filing was meant to be part of that software project.
After the demise of CCMS in 2012, tech companies swooped in to fill the void with off-the-shelf case management systems, and most of the courts now use one of four: Journal Technologies, Justice Systems Inc., Odyssey by Tyler Technologies or Thomson Reuters’ LT Court Tech. A customized version of CCMS is still used in San Diego and Orange counties.
Snorri Ogata, who heads the Judicial Council’s e-filing project, said in an interview that any vendor looking to win the statewide contract – the council hopes to choose anywhere between two and four – will have to be able to work with all of these various case management systems.
They’ll also be required to integrate with the 20 to 30 electronic court runners – referred to as electronic file service providers or EFSPs – currently operating in the courts.
“If we’re going to provide equal, fair and uniform access we’re going to have to put some protections in there,” Ogata said. “Once the court picks the e-filing manager they want to do business with, the statewide coalition EFSPs will have to work with those.”
Ogata is the chief information officer for Los Angeles Superior Court, and prior to that he held the same title for Orange County Superior, the first court in California to require e-filing for the great majority of civil filings.
“It was fundamentally rooted in capitalistic principles. It was about competition and choice,” Ogata said of the court’s e-filing pilot project. Orange County provides permits to a large number of electronic attorney services who pay a substantial fee and are required to satisfy technical and other requirements before they can hook up to the court’s e-filing system.
The Judicial Council’s e-filing RFP is rooted in the same concept of promoting competition to encourage innovation and cut costs.
“If someone wants to go rogue and charge $50 for every filing transaction, the competitor will slide in right away,” Ogata said.
Ogata said e-filing shouldn’t result in a loss of jobs as clerks currently doing counter work will be reassigned to tasks centered around e-filing, or projects and services delayed by year upon year of budget cuts.
“There is no expectation that e-filing will net reduce jobs in LA County,” Ogata said.
The Judicial Council’s Information Technology Advisory Committee will evaluate the proposals, level of experience, and how well they conform to the council’s requirements. For instance, proposers must support electronic payment types other than credit cards, provide a zero-cost filing option for low-income and government filers, and guarantee that they’ll work with all the courts in California – not just the most profitable, high volume ones.
“Every vendor wants to do business in LA. There’s not a chance they’ll be profitable in Alpine,” Ogata said. “So we needed to create an environment that was competitive and also put in some safety-net protection for the smaller counties.”
The council’s statewide contract should protect the courts by giving them their pick of electronic-filing managers at no cost.
Ogata said California is trying to avoid what’s happened in other states, where one EFM is chosen and – because it dominates the market – it ends up focusing on the bigger courts, restricting payment options, extracting exorbitant fees and failing to improve on its product.
“Different jurisdictions in the country were going to this model where the e-filing business was awarded to a single entity, and what happened then was the innovation sort of ground to a halt because the vendor was not overly incentivized to improve the product,” Ogata said. “We were very much interested in championing the benefits for the filer and the courts.
“Once they lock you into this contract they are mostly interested in their profit concern. We wanted to ensure we had a safety net so the individual trial court has control in selecting from one or two or three, and if there was non-performance by a vendor the court can say ‘You’re fired.’”
The “e-filing vision” attached to the RFP outlines several objectives for the project. The first is that courts must not make money off of e-filing or be charged for providing it.
“The e-filing environment should not create a financial interest or obligation for a court,” the RFP states. “There should be no e-filing transaction or other fees that are paid by the court. Likewise, the court employing this service shall not receive revenues from the provision of e-filing services.”
This view stands in modern contrast to states such as Georgia, where pending legislation would mandate e-filing but share the income from e-filing fees with a council of local elected clerks who have become contractually bound to favor a single e-filing company. It allows the company to charge credit fees substantially higher than cost. The legislation is set for rejection or passage this week.
Similar legislation has been proposed in Texas, where local elected clerks are pushing a bill that would take control of e-filing and the fees away from the Texas Supreme Court and its court administrative office, and give that power to the local clerks who would then control e-filing fees for their local offices.
California’s structure of rules and vendor contracts eliminates the more pernicious financial incentives that have sprouted around the switch to another medium for filing court documents. As part of that structure, the Golden State’s rules eliminate the ability of any one vendor to control the electronic gateway to the courthouse and exact a surcharge for that control, both for new filings coming in and copies of documents going out of the courthouse.
While eliminating any financial interest for individual courts, that structure also places authority and responsibility for e-filing directly with the court.
“There will be little or no operational involvement by the Judicial Council in the e-filing environment,” the RFP states. “The management and operation of the e-filing environment will be under the authority and responsibility of the individual courts. The role of the Judicial Council will be limited to providing contract and payment administration as necessary.”
While statewide e-filing isn’t mandatory in California, many courts have enabled some form of e-filing. A few, including Orange, Contra Costa, Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties, have mandated filing for civil cases.
“Every court wants to do e-filing, but there are some courts in Northern California that are running on a 30-year-old case management system that has no ability to move to an e-filing system. They’re stuck in paper,” Ogata said. “So if we were to take the Big Brother approach like in Texas and say every court needs to implement e-filing by 2020, that court would be in hot water.
“When we were surveying the readiness of courts, the single largest obstacle was ‘My CMS is incapable of doing it.’ So it was a very important principle when we were pulling our proposal together that each court had control over when they were ready to participate in the program.”
Proposals are due May 15, and the Judicial Council anticipates that it will announce contract winners on Aug. 11.