(TNS) — On a recent day after work, a group of paralegals perplexed by Cook County’s new electronic filing system gathered at a downtown office to vent about it and take part in some hands-on training.
Tisha Delgado, vice president of the Illinois Paralegal Association, stood behind a projector demonstrating how to file a lawsuit when she saw a prompt on the screen that needed more explanation.
The phrase “ad damnum,” Delgado told the audience of about 30 people, means the amount of money sought through litigation.
“If you were pro se (filing without an attorney), how would you ever know that?” another paralegal chimed in. “That’s terrible.”
In theory, e-filing is supposed to increase access to the courts, enabling people without an attorney in civil cases to submit legal documents from a computer instead of trekking to a courthouse. But many paralegals and attorneys who find the mandatory platform confusing worry that it’s not user-friendly for people filing motions on their own. The system, launched July 1 by an Illinois Supreme Court order, also requires registrants to have an email address and an electronic form of payment, something advocates say can create barriers for low-income people.
Cook County Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown said she is working with the vendor, Texas-based Tyler Technologies, to make the platform more intuitive. But the changes need to be approved by the Administrative Office of the Illinois Courts because they are part of a statewide program, Brown said.
“It’s been very challenging and difficult for our users as well as our staff,” Brown said. “We’re really asking our users to be patient.”
Compared with the federal courts, which have used an electronic filings and case management system since the late 1990s, Cook County was operating in ancient times.
That changed in 2016 when the state’s top court ordered the system to be implemented in all 102 trial courts and selected Tyler Technologies as the sole vendor. Tyler will receive $7 million when the three remaining counties — DuPage, Winnebago and McHenry — come online next summer, said Chris Bonjean, a spokesman for the state Supreme Court.
“Tyler Technologies was selected after an extensive process that evaluated eight comprehensive proposals from e-filing providers,” Bonjean said in an emailed statement. “This selection was made due to Tyler's deep expertise and success in statewide e-filing, including similar implementations with e-filing systems in Texas and Indiana.”
Despite that experience, the transition in Cook County has been bumpy. On the first day of e-filing, long lines filled rooms in the Daley Center where people waited to register online. And just last week, the system temporarily crashed for parts of Tuesday and Wednesday.
E-filing has proved particularly vexing for attorneys and paralegals who say their filings have taken days to get approved. For others, the filings were rejected by clerks for reasons not communicated to them.
Ira Piltz, a Skokie-based practitioner, said he had to drive downtown to fix errors in person. He needed to file a new eviction case, but there were no instructions about how to upload a summons, and he couldn’t figure it out. As a result, Piltz will have to bill his client for extra hours.
“It was an absolute, unmitigated disaster,” Piltz said. “A lawyer’s job is hard enough — especially for a guy like me. I don’t have a real staff. I’m a solo practitioner. I do a lot of this stuff myself.”
The outrage has boiled over on social media too.
“E-filing in Cook County has been a complete failure,” one attorney tweeted July 23, complaining that it took up to 15 days for clerks to process domestic relations paperwork online.
Another lawyer lamented July 6 on Facebook that e-filing was driving him to drink more.
Some attorneys blame Brown for failing to provide enough notice and training on the new software before it went live. But Brown, who said her staff is working overtime to iron out the kinks, said she could provide only the few instructions given to her by Tyler Technologies. One of Brown’s June training sessions drew 1,100 pro se litigants and other court users. There are 131 workstations at the Daley Center and suburban courthouses to assist users and at least 10 people on each floor of the downtown courthouse to answer questions, a spokeswoman said.
Brown acknowledged that people can really learn the system only by using it themselves.
“We did all that we could, that we had in our power, to help people,” Brown said.
If people with years of legal experience are struggling to navigate the new system, it is sure to distress self-representing litigants who are filing motions on their own, said Margaret Duval, executive director of the Domestic Violence Legal Clinic.
“This is a manifestation of the ways that our courts function as a fractured system with the judges on one side, the clerks on another side and multiple other players not working in correspondence with each other for the benefit of the litigants,” Duval said.
For now, e-filing at the domestic violence courthouse is not mandatory, according to an order issued June 29 by Presiding Judge Sebastian T. Patti. Patti issued another order in response to the July 31 and Aug. 1 computer outages, allowing the clerk to start cases on paper for people seeking an emergency order of protection when the system is down for more than two hours. The orders stemmed from concerns that a delay or error from the new system would adversely affect a time-sensitive case.
Leslie Corbett, executive director of the Illinois Equal Justice Foundation, said e-filing can serve an important purpose for people who don’t have time to make a trip to the courthouse. Court technology needs to enter the 21st century, she said, but it should be implemented in a thoughtful way that won’t make participation in the justice system more confusing, she said.
“In terms of our low-income folks, I know the county is trying to do as much as it can as far as having people available to walk them through the process, but the bottom line is for folks who don’t use a computer on a regular basis or who don’t have a credit card and an email address, this is just one more barrier,” Corbett said.
Bonjean said there are several exemptions that allow self-representing litigants to keep using paper filings: if they do not have internet or computer access at home, have a disability that keeps them from e-filing, have trouble reading or speaking in English, or are filing an order of protection or civil no-contact/stalking order.
Meanwhile, judges are also considering how the new system affects their daily process in the courtroom. In that past month, Chief Circuit Court Judge Timothy Evans has met twice with officials in the clerk’s office, the Administrative Office of the Illinois Courts and Tyler Technologies, said his spokesman, Pat Milhizer.
“The meetings generated discussion that helped the Clerk representatives and Tyler Technologies identify solutions for the new e-filing process,” Milhizer said in an emailed statement.
By far, Cook County is the state’s largest and most complex court system to undergo the electronic makeover. The Illinois Supreme Court granted Brown a six-month extension to prepare for the change in December when Tyler Technologies and the clerk agreed it could not meet the state’s Jan. 1 deadline. Cook was among 15 counties already using a form of electronic filing that needed to be switched over to the state-selected vendor.
Delgado, the paralegal who organized a training for colleagues, said she has gotten used to calling the clerk’s office for help every morning since the new system launched, joking that she has built a reputation there.
But more seriously, she said she wonders why the state didn’t outfit Cook County with the system first instead of last.
“Cook County is the most complicated one,” she said, “so if they could figure out Cook County, then everyone else could have been easy.”
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