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    Paperless Courts: E-Filing in Wisconsin Circuit Courts

    On July 1, a rule setting out procedures for filing circuit court cases electronically takes effect. E-filing will debut county by county as circuit court judges and clerks implement the procedures. Here’s what you need to know to take full advantage of this process when it becomes available in your county.

    Marcia VanderCook

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    Wisconsin LawyerWisconsin Lawyer
    Vol. 81, No. 7, July 2008

    Paperless Courts: E-Filing in Wisconsin Circuit Courts

    On July 1, a rule setting out procedures for filing circuit court cases electronically took effect. E-filing will debut county-by-county as circuit court judges and clerks implement the procedures. Here's what you need to know to take full advantage of this process when it becomes available in your county.
    E-Filing

    by Jean Bousquet & Marcia Vandercook

    Sidebar:

    Electronic filing (e-filing) is on its way to the Wisconsin circuit courts. On May 1, 2008, the Wisconsin Supreme Court approved a rule setting out the procedures for filing circuit court cases electronically, codified as Wis. Stat. section 801.17.1 Over the next few years, e-filing will become available county by county as clerks of circuit court and judges implement the new procedures. E-filing is voluntary both for lawyers and litigants. Director of State Courts John Voelker has been a strong supporter of implementing technology throughout the judicial branch. "We have now tested our e-filing system for two years, using small claims cases in Washington and Kenosha counties, and we've been very pleased with how it has performed. We're confident that e-filing will be an efficient, secure, and cost-effective way to streamline the way courts handle documents."

    What are the benefits for law firms?

    For law firms, electronic filing offers a quick and easy way to file cases and receive documents. Many aspects of the e-filing system are modeled after the federal courts' e-filing system. The consolidated court automation programs (CCAP) is creating a separate Web site, at http://e-filing.wicourts.gov, to process electronically filed documents. An attorney can file documents through the court e-filing Web site without leaving the office. Whenever a new document or order is filed by other parties or the court, the law office will receive an email indicating that the document is available to be immediately viewed and downloaded.

    Lawyers and parties benefit by avoiding some of the costs of printing, postage, courier services, and file storage associated with paper documents. Pleadings can be signed by the lawyer using an electronic signature, and filing fees can be paid with a credit card. Lawyers will be able to access complete court files for their own cases 24 hours a day. Self-represented litigants also may register to use the system. Litigants who are represented by counsel will continue to file and receive documents only through counsel and will not be users of the Web site.

    Rausch, Sturm, Israel & Hornik in Milwaukee volunteered to file small claims collections actions electronically as part of the pilot project. "Through e-filing, we believe we have better control over case management by knowing exactly when our cases will be filed, rather than relying on the mail," reports attorney Gregory Enerson. "We also like being able to see the whole court file online," he said. "The clerk's office in Washington County has been a good partner in fine-tuning the system and working out any glitches. It's become a pretty streamlined process, and we're happy we were part of the pilot project.

    "When e-filing first became available in federal bankruptcy court, I think there was some resistance to this new procedure. Now, the vast majority of the users love the bankruptcy e-filing system. I think it's going to go the same way for e-filing in the circuit courts."

    What are the benefits for the courts?

    For the circuit courts, e-filing will reduce the time dedicated to data entry and improve accuracy, because case information is downloaded from the Web site directly into the CCAP case management system. Court employees will not need to enter case information, handle fees, or mail notices and documents. Any paper documents received will be scanned to create an all-electronic file, saving the time and money needed to open, transport, and store paper files. Clerks will have the option of maintaining paper files for e-filed cases, but they will not be required to do so.

    Kristine Deiss, Washington County Circuit Court clerk, has been participating in the pilot project since 2005. "The system is very user friendly from our perspective. The ability of the system to automatically populate data from the e-filed documents into our case management system is wonderful. The civil clerk, the accounting supervisor, the judicial assistant, and the judge can all access an electronic file for information at the same time. Staff can easily bring the case up and review all documents on their computer monitor, or quickly print a copy when requested.

    "E-filing also helps to address another major challenge for the courts - dealing with the tons of paper produced by modern litigation and the high cost of storage. Simply stated, it makes sense to store that data online, with access as simple as a point and click of a computer mouse."

    In Kenosha County, Court Commissioner John Plous hears initial returns of all small claims cases. He has a computer at his bench and reviews the electronic documents as he hears each case and makes his determinations. "We bring all the cases up on my courtroom computer before court starts, which allows us to move rapidly between cases. Each document is easily accessible and identifiable in the e-filing system, making it easier to review documents and move between them than to page through a paper file. The clerks don't have to pull and assemble paper files to bring to court, and I no longer have stacks of paper files on the bench." He uses an electronic signature to sign orders and judgments. When a case is concluded, the clerk disposes of the case and the e-filing system posts all the documentation to the e-filing Web site.

    Jean Bousquet Marcia 
Vandercook

    Jean Bousquet is chief information officer of the Wisconsin court system and oversees development of the court e-filing Web site. Marcia Vandercook, Berkeley 1978, is circuit court legal advisor and staff to the committee that drafted the e-filing rule.

    Is the system reliable and secure?

    Reliability and security are paramount considerations for any electronic filing system, and on these measures the Wisconsin system has performed well. More than 1,000 small claims money judgment cases have been electronically filed in Washington and Kenosha counties since 2005, and there have been no problems with pleadings sent to the wrong place, untimely filings, lost documents, or notices not being received. If problems were to occur with certain technical aspects of the system, discretionary relief would be available under the e-filing rule.

    As far as security, CCAP is relying on digital signature technology to ensure the authenticity and integrity of electronically filed documents. A digital signature is not actually a signature; it is a method of encrypting information and permanently attaching it to the filed document. By locking down a document at the moment it is accepted by court staff, and by storing that document in a secure database, CCAP will be able to maintain original documents in the case management system without fear that the documents might later be altered.

    When will e-filing become available?

    Although the court rule became effective July 1, 2008, it could take several years for e-filing to become widely available throughout the state. Just as clerks and judges adopted the CCAP case management system county by county, so too will e-filing be available for local adoption. E-filing requires intensive scanning of documents, and so clerks will need to balance the front-end cost of scanning and office reorganization against the longer-term efficiency of all-electronic files. Judges and court commissioners will vary in their enthusiasm for new technology, as will local attorneys.

    In addition, implementing e-filing requires a considerable commitment of CCAP's programming resources, so CCAP will provide e-filing only for civil, family, and small claims cases, (but temporary restraining orders injunctions, and paternity cases will not be available until CCAP completes further programming work). Implementing e-filing for criminal and juvenile cases will take longer because of the need to incorporate interfaces with the large institutional case management systems of the district attorneys, public defenders, and other agencies.

    The e-filing Web site is expected to be up and running by July 15, 2008, at http://e-filing.wicourts.gov. It will provide information about which counties are currently accepting e-filed cases and which case types are available. It will include comprehensive instructions, help features, frequently asked questions, technical requirements, and training videos. As e-filing is adopted in each county, training will be provided to local lawyers and their employees and other persons on how to use the system. CCAP expects to enhance and expand the e-filing system over the years in response to customer needs and preferences. An e-filing system for the appellate courts also is under consideration. E-filing will not be available in Portage County, the only county that has not implemented the CCAP case management system.

    What if a party doesn't want to file electronically?

    Use of the e-filing system is voluntary. Lawyers may use it for a single case, all of their cases, or not at all. If an attorney chooses not to participate electronically, there is one part of the e-filing rule that will affect the attorney if another party files electronically: Because the clerk is permitted to keep all-electronic files, the rule allows the clerk to discard documents after they have been scanned and properly saved in the CCAP case management system. Therefore, all parties in an e-filed case will submit copies to the court and keep the original documents in case the authenticity of the document or signature is called into question. In non-e-filing cases, the parties will continue to submit original documents.

    Kristine Deiss says she is both realistic and optimistic about the future of e-filing in circuit courts. "We know that some attorneys and judges will embrace e-filing and others will insist on continuing to use paper. But the more we use electronic files, the more we [will have ease of access, the efficiencies created when we open and process a case, the ability to quickly respond to inquiries, and the space to house staff rather than accommodate more paper files."

    Endnotes

    1The new rule was published in the June 2008 Wisconsin Lawyer as Supreme Court Order 06-08 and can be found online at http://wicourts.gov/sc/rulhear/DisplayDocument.html?content=html&seqNo=32597.



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