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E-filing aims to reduce courts' dependence on paper

After years of trial and error, lawyers and courts may finally be ready to adopt electronic filing--a move that could yield enormous savings in document-processing and manpower costs.

It was just after midnight on a recent Monday morning, and Colorado attorney Russel Murray was already headed to court.

Not that it would take him eight hours to get there--in fact, it was just a mouse click away. Murray was about to send the first electronic filing in a weeklong pilot program with the Colorado state courts, one of the most ambitious efforts yet to bring Internet technologies to the judicial system.

"We wanted to prove that it was open 24/7," he said of the experiment, in which he forwarded some motions in a divorce case. "If they didn't go through, we could have still made it to the courthouse by 8:00."

The U.S. courts have been experimenting with electronic filing since at least 1994, when the federal district court in Albuquerque, N.M., launched its Advanced Court Engineering project (ACE). Those efforts have since been joined by the federal Administrative Office of the Courts as well as private companies that sense a huge business opportunity in easing the legal profession's addiction to paper.

After years of trial and error, signs are growing that lawyers and the courts are finally ready to adopt electronic filing--a move that could yield enormous savings in document-processing and manpower costs.

In Colorado, the state has outsourced its electronic filing project to CourtLink, a private company that tomorrow plans to move from the pilot stage and begin implementing the first statewide effort to allow attorneys to submit court documents over the Internet.

"This will be a major shift in the way litigation is done and provide a substantial value to all parties," said Bob Roper, the director of the Colorado Judicial Branch's Integrated Information Services.

As the Colorado pilot launched last Monday, legal powerhouse West Group also announced a strategic partnership with California's Orange County Bar Association to help develop WestLink, its new electronic court filing service. In addition, the Albuquerque district court's ACE added criminal court filings to its current staple of civil filings, becoming the first court in the nation to offer complete electronic filing services.

Colorado pushes ahead
This week's launch of CourtLink will provide a first step in bringing electronic legal filings to Colorado's civil courts, beginning with civil, probate, water and domestic relations cases. Service for other types of cases, including criminal, won't be available until at least 2001, according to the company.

CourtLink is footing the front-end costs of the program but plans to charge 10 cents a page to process documents from lawyers and others who file papers with the court. CourtLink executives said they believe the service will net users a 40 percent to 90 percent cost savings compared with filing documents by mail or FedEx.

"A lot of other states are watching us," said CourtLink chairman Henry Givray.

Attorney Murray, who participated in the Colorado pilot, said the state's plan is a massive undertaking compared with similar efforts that he said have tended to focus on single jurisdictions.

"There are some courts elsewhere that have done it, but what makes Colorado different is it's the first in the country where a statewide rollout has commenced," he said.

Others have gone before
If CourtLink's plans are the biggest yet, they are not the first.

Electronic filing first arrived on the radar screen of the Administrative Office of the Courts in 1996 as a way to manage the enormous flood of documents into the Northern Ohio District Court over asbestos cases.

A federal pilot program was later introduced in nine courts, including several bankruptcy courts, where e-filing has made some important steps forward. Those efforts--known as Case Management/Electronic Case Filing--have not led to a national e-filing system, however.

Meanwhile, the Albuquerque district court has moved ahead independently.

According to a recent memo from the Albuquerque federal court comparing competing electronic filing systems, technologies may vary in the details but in general offer a similar approach first pioneered by Albuquerque's own ACE project. Most--including CourtLink's--use Adobe's PDF document format to create files that are not easily tampered with. They also use a browser interface, provide confirmation that a document has been successfully received, and update the court's case-management database with appropriate entries.

As electronic filing programs slowly take wing, veterans of those early battles point to more to come but predict eventual success.

"When we first started, everyone was scared to death of it," said Marte Adams, judicial operations manager at the Albuquerque district court. "(The law) is a tradition-based discipline, and everyone was attached to the manual process. Now, people who have left this office and moved on to places that have no electronic system can barely cope. It was painful at first, but now none of us could go back."