Level of Govt: State.
Function: Case filing and management.
Problem/situation: Courthouses awash with paper related to cases.
Solution: Electronic filing and management.
Jurisdiction: Maryland Circuit Court.
Vendors: Andersen Consulting, Lotus Corp., AT&T; and Compaq Computer Corp.
Contact: Jim McMillan, National Center for State Courts 804/253-2000; Ken Bien, Andersen Consulting 916/444-6700; Suzanne James, Prince George's County, 301/952-3708; Judge Ahalt, 301/952-4520.
by James Evans
The paper industry won't be happy. But even the techno-phobic legal profession was bound to step into the computer and telecommunications era sooner or later.
Lawyers and judges generate a blizzard of paper documents daily, all needing filing, sorting and indexing for later retrieval. The justice system in particular is sagging under the weight of its paper load at a time when the courts have fewer resources to hire staff to deal with an avalanche of complaints, briefs and motions. Clearly, with advanced database technology and the ability to send and receive electronic documents, there must be a more efficient and less expensive way to conduct business.
To demonstrate how technology can help mitigate these issues, the National Center for State Courts and a group of private companies led by Andersen Consulting are sponsoring a system called JusticeLINK. Since last May, the Circuit Court in Prince George's County, Md., has been conducting a 90-day experiment to accept electronic filings and place them in a court database, which is accessible to all parties and judges involved in the case, thus eliminating the need to make a trip to the courthouse. Nearly 20 years after the personal computer revolution erupted, this is the only state court looking at electronic filing on a systemwide basis.
"There are other efforts going on, but this is the first full implementation," said Jim McMillan, director of the court technology laboratory at the National Center for State Courts. "Of course, we would like to see as many litigators on the system as possible since that makes everyone more efficient and effective. But we have a big selling job ahead of us."
SELLING THE CONCEPT
Part of that selling job is convincing lawyers and judges that paper is expensive to use - taking a toll on everyone connected to the justice system. "Preparing documents for transmission on paper has been proven in many studies to be as much as 200 percent more costly per page than sending them electronically," McMillan said. "But private litigators usually don't understand those costs. They simply pass the time and cost of preparing documents on to their clients. They may even view electronic filing as costing them income since it would lessen the time it would take for them to prepare documents."
McMillan hopes market forces will encourage lawyers to adopt technological advances at a faster pace and move Prince George's County-type experiments from pilot projects to working models. "In other businesses, the more efficient people have more time to seek additional business and can advertise that they use the latest technology to lower their customer's costs," he said. "Time will tell if and when that dynamic of the market will apply to the legal profession."
McMillan added that the courts also have to alter their ways. If they remain dependent on paper filing, the cost of the justice system will become prohibitive to the public. "Our projection is that the courts can't afford to do business on paper. They will have to start charging appropriate amounts [of money] when dealing with paper. They will be forced by declining economic realities to do things more efficiently."
The search for efficiency was at the heart of a study prepared by Andersen Consulting, which concluded that if 80 percent of 19.1 million lawsuits in 1991 had been filed electronically, attorneys and their clients could have saved $646 million. Andersen Consulting calculated it could make money and still offer a savings to the legal profession by creating and operating JusticeLINK, which will be available to attorneys on a subscription basis, allowing subscribers to:
+ Receive official filings, pleadings, briefs, complaints and other court documents.
+ Receive exhibits and evidence.
+ Send notices to any other subscriber.
+ Electronically charge filing fees.
+ Access any JusticeLINK database designated as "public."
+ Send e-mail to law firms, other courts or any JusticeLINK subscriber.
+ Utilize the digital imaging capabilities of the system.
+ Publish JusticeLINK databases for public access.
+ Allow judges to file decisions electronically.
In addition, papers filed by attorneys who are not subscribers will be scanned and turned into electronic documents, and electronic filings will be available in printed form to attorneys and judges who need them.
TESTING THE CONCEPT
Three judges, nine law firms and about 30 lawyers are participating in the pilot project, which is limited to personal injury and foreclosure cases and will be scrutinized to determine if including a case in the system meets the needs of everyone. The JusticeLINK system is based on Lotus Development's Corp.'s Lotus Notes workgroup interface, and has the participation of AT&T; and Compaq Computer Corp.
"The goal is to bring the justice community into the infocosm," said M. Kenneth Bien, the Sacramento, Calif.-based managing partner of the Justice and Public Safety Team at Andersen Consulting. "The legal profession seems to be ready, but it remains to be seen how receptive attorneys are and whether they derive any benefit from it. We need some hard data.
"The pilot project also will determine the cost of subscription, what the market will bear and what the value is, what kind of revenue structure must be in place to support it, and if we can make money on it," Bien said. "The court wants to know that too."
Judge Arthur M. Ahalt, the supervising judge for civil cases and the court's technology coordinator, said he and other judges want to know if they can rely on a paperless system. Ahalt said he has been working on getting such a project moving for three years, and has been thinking about streamlining the filing process since first entering the courthouse as a lawyer in 1967.
"About 50 percent of the cost of running the court is attributed to moving paper, so there are tremendous potential savings," he said. "The other judges are excited about the prospect, but they want to see it work. There's an element of healthy skepticism here, but if it works, it means we won't be paper dependent. We won't need a paper file that has to be brought to us by staff. We will be able to look at files electronically, and that will be wonderful."
Ahalt added that he and his colleagues on the bench have been wrestling with ideas to make information more easily available to the public, at a reduced cost to consumers and taxpayers. It is obvious, he said, that expanding the paper process, and adding more personnel to handle the increased deluge of paper, will only add to the problem rather than solving it. "One of the benefits of JusticeLINK is that it increases public access to court information at less expense, and allows us to organize our system so we don't need as many resources sent into the courtroom to make decisions."
McMillan at the National Center for State Courts said his organization has been pushing for electronic filing for five years, and recommended Prince George's County for its technological knowledge and capable administration. Although he's happy about the project, he thinks there is still a long way to go.
"In football you have to get to the 20 yard line before you can score," he said. "This will get us to the 20 yard line. I don't know that we'll be able to get a touchdown, but at least we'll be in a position to get a field goal."