Alameda, Calif.-based @Court is betting that its electronic-filing service will let legal professionals deliver secure documents within minutes, instead of days. The company said its eFiling service, which is set to launch in its final version in June, will not only eliminate the long, tedious paper-based filing system but also enable courts and attorneys to reduce costs.
But Owen Seitel, a partner at law firm Idell Berman & Seitel, said U.S. courts must require all parties to use electronic filing for the system to be effective.
"I would have absolutely no concerns" about an electronic system, Seitel said. But "it's just a matter of the first point that has to happen--the courts need to recognize this filing system, and that is an assumption that is basic here."
To encourage courts to join the digital movement, @Court also will launch Monday an open-source, XML-based system that lets courts accept electronically filed documents. Dubbed the Connectivity Tool Kit, the system lets IT managers for courts connect their back-office systems to Web-based services.
The launches come as many law sites are trying to make a case for bypassing traditional legal channels. In February, MyCounsel.com debuted a service that helps people find legal information and a qualified attorney online. LawGuru.com also offers legal research and an attorney search tool plus other features, such as chat rooms and daily legal news.
These sites are timing their push for online legal services to the market downturn, hoping to entice struggling companies with the possibility of cost savings.
"We have to get this out today while the economy is continuing to drop," said John Healy, president of @Court. "The need is even greater now to reduce your cost and your overhead, and this (service) is what gives that capability to both the courts and the vendors."
Taking the paper out of the chase
The company said that with an electronic filing system, lawyers could cut costs up to 80 percent by reducing the expenses for items, such as courier expenses and other paper-based delivery systems. Online services would also reduce the costs of filing legal documents for courts, saving taxpayer dollars, according to the company.
@Court said its eFiling system will operate across jurisdictions nationwide--all day, every day. The company will not charge subscription fees or a set-up fee; instead, it will add a $15 fee for each transaction.
Although Healy declined to comment on the financial position of his company or its investors, he is confident that @Court is well funded and has a solid business model, citing the charges for individual transactions as its revenue stream.
Idell Berman & Seitel's Seitel sees the electronic system as a vast improvement, as many attorneys now file documents via bike messengers, who speed to a courthouse before the clerk's office closes.
"I think the legal community at large would be in favor of opting in to something like this because it's possibly going to just cut down on paper costs (and) cut down on the costs for serving documents to other parties," he said. "Probably the only parties I could see that would be adamantly against it, because it's not in their economic interest, would be the messenger services."
He added, however, that the system would need digital-signature technology that provides encryption to ensure a third party could not alter files. Other legal experts also cited the need for "proper security."
"I hope you have good secure receipts because if the system goes down, you're going to want to know whether it got there or not," said Michael Froomkin, a law professor at the University of Miami School of Law.
Even then, Froomkin said an electronic system would need to be the choice, not the requirement, for filing court documents.
"You can't require people to use these things," he said. "You can't require people to have computers. But as an option, you can permit it."