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Extras - Who Benefits From Electronic Filing?

By M. Sean Fosmire, Published on April 17, 2000

M. Sean Fosmire is with the Michigan law firm of Garan Lucow Miller, P.C.

Electronic court filing is becoming more and more widely used by courts at all levels. But who benefits when an e-filing system is set up? The advantages are more widespread than might appear at first sight.

Attorneys

We may start with a consideration of how e-filing benefits counsel who appear before the courts, but we will quickly perceive that many of the identified advantages will apply to judges and other court personnel as well.

Distance filing

Appellate attorneys who live far from the court are familiar with the drill: Get the brief done a day or two before it is due, get it into the hands of an overnight delivery service, and then pray. If you are lucky, it will be delivered on time.

Many appellate courts date filings based on actual receipt of the document. A brief is timely filed only if it is received by the court by the day it is due. A postmark bearing the due date is not good enough. That is fine if you live in the city where the court is located, or one or two hours away. If you live six, eight, or ten hours away, the calculations are quite a bit different.

A court which offers electronic filing could use the date and time the file is uploaded to measure compliance with its deadlines. Any competent e-filing system will incorporate a "date stamp" feature which provides for a quick and easy way to verify the precise date and time a document was filed.

With electronic filing, an attorney whose office is ten hours from the court can finish the brief by 4:30 p.m. and have it timely filed by 5:00 p.m., just as his big-city opponent can do.

Access to Files

Getting the files to the court is only half of the story. An e-filing system which provides access to briefs and filings only on the court's local network is missing out on some of the most significant benefits offered by modern technology. Making these documents generally available to counsel, court personnel and to the public via web browser offers a number of additional efficiencies.

Immediate Access

An e-filing system which is properly designed to provide online access to files will permit attorneys representing parties to have immediate access to the filings as soon as they are up on the site. No more waiting for two or three days for a copy of the brief to come in the mail.

Universal Access

An e-filing system which is properly designed to provide online access to files will permit attorneys representing parties to have immediate access to the filings as soon as they are up on the site. No more waiting for two or three days for a copy of the brief to come in the mail.

Electronic Text

There are significant advantages to electronic text over briefs and filings on paper. We are all familiar with them, but the important ones bear listing here. Electronic text can be searched. It can be quickly copied and pasted for use in quotes. It can be analyzed using document and text indexing software so that instances of key words or phrases can be marked and immediately found. It can be stored and archived on computer media, either magnetic tape or optical storage media such as CD-ROM, thus saving valuable shelf space.

Court Personnel

Judges and their clerks, of course, need to have access to filed documents to review and analyze the law and the arguments of counsel. All of the advantages to attorneys described above also apply with equal force to these court personnel. The documents can be retrieved immediately, and they can be retrieved from anywhere. The same software tools for document review and analysis can be used by the court personnel who know how to use them.

The court's administrative personnel may also benefit. If a court adopts full electronic filing, in lieu of paper briefs, then the costs in time and money to handle, store, catalog and retrieve paper briefs are significantly reduced. Ultimately, the costs of archiving and storing paper briefs will disappear in some courts, since they will be replaced entirely by electronic files. (This will take some time in coming, but we will indeed get there.)

The Public

Any technology which results in quicker and easier access to the courts, under a well-crafted set of rules and procedures, ultimately benefits the public. Cost savings in the operation of courts are surely in the interest of the public. Convenience and cost savings to attorneys means cost savings to the litigants they represent.

Electronic filing can significantly increase the opportunity for courts to use alternative dispute resolution mechanisms to help to resolve disputes before the point at which the court must decide them.

Electronic filing will benefit the bar and the public by making available to attorneys, researchers, students, and journalists the briefs filed by the parties in litigated cases, particularly those cases which are important to the state's jurisprudence. Today, only the court's published decision is widely available to members of the public. A system of electronic filing which makes the briefs and supporting documents just as widely available will help to further the interest of justice by making available to any interested member of the public the positions and arguments advanced by the parties, as well as the court's rulings and their underlying reasoning.

Briefs Filed with the Courts Belong to the Public.  The Courts are their Custodians

Ultimately, the courts exist to serve the public. The courts which best carry out this ultimate duty will be those which utilize all of the advantages of internet technology to make those documents more accessible and more useful to persons having business before them.