|by Daniel J. Siegel||
Spring 2007, Vol. 70, No. 1
When does City Hall close? To lawyers, that question really means, "When does the Prothonotary's Office close?" or "When does Motion Court close?" or "When does second filing close?" Deep down, the question translates to, "Oh my God, have I screwed up and missed the filing deadline?" and "Am I going to get fired?"
It's a feeling of numb desperation an emptiness that should disappear forever in 2008 when electronic filing in civil cases becomes a reality in the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas. The culmination of nearly two years of work, countless hours of computer programming and testing, and with significant input from the bar, Philadelphia's e-filing system will be a state-of-the-art process that will eliminate that sinking feeling when the copier jams five minutes before the courier is scheduled to pick up a pleading that, of course, must be filed that day.
E-filing is already the rule for Orphans' Court as well as for criminal and civil cases in most federal courts because e-filing:
Practitioners also agree that the Orphans' Court system has worked well. "We have used the Orphans' Court system and have had no problems," said M. Howard Vigderman, chair of the trusts and estates section at Montgomery, McCracken, Walker and Rhoads, LLP.
While planning the civil e-filing site, the court was well aware that there are many more civil filings compared with Orphans' Court. In addition, the court views the e-filing system as another example of the cooperation between the bench and the bar. Fitzgerald notes, for example, that the projects oversight committee, which includes attorneys Andrew Stern, Nancy Fullam and Rudolph Garcia, "is a cooperative effort with the bar, and we intend to make further adjustments based on the input we receive."
"We are building a great system," said Charles A. Mapp Sr., deputy court administrator, noting that the courts goal is to create "the best system in the country." Mapp is also optimistic that once Philadelphias e-filing system is up and running, "Other counties throughout the state will take a look and follow suit."
Although still under construction, the basic design and function of the civil e-filing system are complete and it will look similar to the Orphans Court system.
"We are looking to make [civil e-filing] a more robust system," said Prothonotary Joseph H. Evers, who co-chairs the e-filing project with Mapp. "But we also want to make it intuitive enough that all the users will be able to negotiate what they have to do with minimal problems." Before designing the system, the court looked all over the country to see what other courts are doing.
The court also welcomes input from the bar; just send an e-mail to email@example.com.
Once a document is filed, it will be transferred and integrated into the court's case management and document management systems. The court will immediately serve notice to all counsel that a document has been e-filed. Counsel can then review the document online and save it on their own computers or servers. The only documents that the court will not serve are initial process such as complaints and writs of summons, which must still be personally served according to the Pennsylvania Rules of Civil Procedure. The court also will issue and serve other court notices and orders electronically.
In order to maintain the integrity, pagination and formatting of pleadings, the court will require that pleadings be submitted in a portable document format, or "pdf." In other words, registered users must convert a document (which is generally prepared in a word processing application such as Microsoft Word or Corel WordPerfect) and all exhibits to portable document format. The conversion may be accomplished by using programs such as Adobe Acrobat, pdf995 or WordPerfect, or by scanning paper documents and saving them in pdf format. Documents will then be uploaded to the court after the user logs in and pays any applicable fees. "If you can add an attachment to an e-mail, then you can file an electronic document," Mapp said.
The court is extremely excited about e-filing and views it as a major step forward. "The bar should appreciate the First Judicial District is 100 percent committed to implementing this," said President Judge C. Darnell Jones II. "It is mutually beneficial and the rewards are incalculable," he added.
The Hon. William J. Manfredi, supervising judge, Trial Division-Civil, views e-filing as a natural expansion of the court's and counsel's use of technology. "Law firms have sophisticated case management and document management systems, and we have become sophisticated with our case management and document management systems," he said. "We are bridging the disconnect between law firms and the court," Judge Manfredi added, noting that the court's goal is to develop eventually a seamless integration between the courts and counsels technology.
E-filing has been used successfully for years throughout the country in mass torts and other cases that involve many attorneys. Traditionally in these cases, counsel had been required to mail hard copies of every document to every attorney; the costs especially for photocopies and postage were enormous. Plus, whenever a law firm or attorney moved, it meant updating counsel lists, and mistakes were inevitable. Once e-filing was implemented, as long as counsel's e-mail address is accurate, he or she receives notification of every filing as soon as it occurs. "E-filing puts everybody in contact with all information on a case immediately, not forty-eight hours later," said Judge Fitzgerald, adding, "Lawyers are used to doing business through technology."
The court also recognizes that access to electronic documents raises privacy concerns, and it is considering methods to ensure that private information that appears in various filings, such as Social Security numbers, is protected from inadvertent disclosure. "We are concerned about privacy for litigants," said Judge Jones. Privacy is among the reasons the court has not yet expanded e-filing to criminal cases.
With the arrival of e-filing in Philadelphia, the days of just saying "no" to technology are clearly disappearing. Lawyers who want to remain in the pre-computer age will now have no choice but to change when they find, to their chagrin, that rushing to City Hall is futile because the only way to file documents is online. While some may fear that reality, Judge Fitzgerald noted that, in the long run, the court is creating a system that will "work for everyones benefit."
Daniel J. Siegel (firstname.lastname@example.org), a member of the Editorial Board of The Philadelphia Lawyer, is a sole practitioner in the Philadelphia area and the president of Integrated Technology Services, LLC.