SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – San Francisco Superior Court has called for bids on a contract to set up a system so lawyers can file their documents through the web. A different IT system pushed by California’s central court bureaucracy is not under consideration.
According to terms announced last week, San Francisco’s trial court is looking for a “partnership” with a private contractor. It looks like the cost of that partnership will be paid by lawyers who e-file documents.
San Francisco’s “request for proposal,” in the jargon of public contracts, does not mention the Court Case Management System, an IT system built for California’s courts at extraordinary public expense. The latest version of that system is supposed to allow electronic filing.
“The court doesn’t have CCMS now and doesn’t have plans to use CCMS in the future,” said San Francisco’s court spokesperson Ann Donlan.
A key aspect of the San Francisco’s existing computer system is that it is already set up to receive e-filed documents, leaving as a fairly straight-forward endeavor the remaining component of providing a delivery system.
“Without getting too technical, the court already has a case management system to store and organize the case information, a document management system to store the documents, and the e-filing manager, or EFM, which is what an external e-filing system plugs into,” said Adam Angione, special projects editor for Courthouse News.
“So it just needs the e-filing system to plug in.”
In general, courts attempting to switch over to Internet-based filing are faced with three options, building their own software, buying a license for privately built software, or sharing income with a vendor that provides the software.
“Because the court doesn’t want to or can’t build the e-filing system itself, or pay for a software license to buy the e-filing system and run it internally, they’re going with the third option,” said Angione “which is the least costly to the court but usually the most costly to the filer, compared to the other e-filing software options of building or buying.”
One of the downfalls of such vendor-dependent systems has been that the vendor takes de-facto control of court information and documents, and then makes millions of dollars through the sale of data. The courts are left standing alongside that road to revenue, tin cup in hand.
Over time, they have wised up.
The terms of San Francisco’s auction say the court retains full control of the documents and the income they provide. The vendor cannot resell the documents.
“It’s pretty clear that the court is trying to control public access and trying to prevent a system where the vendor can sell public access,” said Angione.
The project that in some ways competes with vendor-dependent systems is the long campaign by the central court bureaucracy to develop an IT system for use in all of California’s trial courts. It was supposed to provide all the key elements in accepting and keeping track of legal documents — case management, document storage and e-filing.
But the statewide endeavor has drained the California court budget of $521 million over nine years. That massive and massively expensive undertaking is projected to continue costing California’s treasury a cool quarter-million dollars a day from now until mid-2014, and in all likelihood it will continue to cost millions for years afterwards.
The latest version of that publicly developed system, called CCMS V-4, was recently rejected by two big courts, Sacramento and Los Angeles, that are familiar with earlier versions of the software. Even so, the champions of the statewide project are trying to push V-4 into ten trial courts, with a report on feasibility scheduled for later this month.
The big courts, however, are not jumping on board.
In addition to Sacramento and Los Angeles, trial courts in Orange County and San Diego are sticking with an earlier and heavily modified version of the publicly funded software. They have accepted bids from private vendors to provide e-filing functionality.
One of the objections to V-4, and the CCMS system as a whole, is that it costs millions to implement and millions more to run, in that it is more complicated and requires more data entry than most court software systems. Those costs are part of San Francisco’s decision to go another route.
“The Court is seeking an e-filing vendor to partner with the Court to implement a solution at no cost to the Court,” said Donlan in San Francisco. “Implementing CCMS V-4 would require a minimum of several million dollars in infrastructure costs, process changes and ongoing maintenance agreements – which the Court cannot afford.”
Among the terms required of the bidders on the project, San Francisco wants to allow all types of documents to be filed, including Word and WordPerfect, PDF, TIFF and JPEG files, as well as XML documents.
The bidder needs to be able to convert all those various documents into PDF files.
On the issue of control, the work statement accompanying the request for proposal says, “Contractor will not retain and/or distribute copies of case file/document submissions.”
Revenue sharing is possible, within the terms of the project.
“If applicable, Contractor to participate in a cost recovery methodology established by the Court, which could potentially be generated through fees paid by E-filers,” said the project documents.
“Because we don’t know specifics of the cost structure,” said Angione, “it’s difficult to say for certain, but the RFP at least contemplates transaction fees, which, for e-filing will apparently be set by the court, but for other transactions such as e-service, may be set by the vendor itself with court approval.”
“It’s hard to know what the court’s and each vendor’s cost recovery methodology will be before they submit their proposals,” he added. The exhibits to the auction, for example, instruct the contractor to provide financial reports with a separate line item for the “court’s cost recovery fee.”
“So maybe there will be an e-filing fee set by the vendor plus a cost recovery fee set by the court,” said Angione, “on top of all of the statutory fees paid by the filer.”
He also pointed to terms in the auction documents saying, “Initial service fees and all subsequent fee modifications shall be subject to Court approval.”
“It seems that the vendor will propose a fee amount,” said Angione, “and the court would have to approve it.”
The somewhat similar auctions in San Diego and Orange County allowed for multiple contractors to provide the e-filing services. But vendors say the San Francisco proposal appears to be a different type of beast.
They point to the language of “partnership” that suggests one vendor only.
When asked whether San Francisco would accept multiple vendors, Donlan answered, “It’s going to depend on who can meet our specifications.”
The deadline for proposals for the San Francisco system submissions is April 13. After an initial cut of the proposals, the includes an interview, cost proposals would open on April 20. The contract is supposed to be awarded May 3.