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Proposed e-filing rule comment period open

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Lawyers will be able to file state court cases and motions with the ease of clicking a button beginning next year. Getting to that point won’t be so simple.

“We will experience some growing pains,” said Marion Superior 2 Special Master Therese Hannah, a member of a committee appointed by the Indiana Supreme Court to move the state toward electronic filing.

“The young people I think are most clear about it, and one woman told me we need to develop the processes to support e-filing,” Hannah said. “She’s right. We’ve got hundreds of years of experience supporting paper, but we haven’t caught up” with technology.

Paul-mathias-1-15col.jpg Court of Appeals Judge Paul Mathias stands behind his tech-heavy desktop in his Statehouse chambers. Mathias is a leading force in the state courts’ e-filing initiative. (IL photo/Dave Stafford)

The Supreme Court is taking steps in that direction, inviting comments through June 23 on the proposed rule for e-filing. The court issued an order May 22 for state courts to begin the transition in 2015.

Indiana has some experience with e-filing. Marion and Lake counties, the state’s two most populous, have had pilot projects in place for years – including in Hannah’s court – since the Supreme Court authorized them in 2006. Those pilots will continue.

“Nearly every aspect of our lives includes electronic documents — stores send receipts via email, banks allow check deposits through a smart phone,” Chief Justice Brent Dickson said. “Now lawyers and litigants will be able to file court documents electronically. Using this technology, our courts will be more efficient and better able to administer justice without delay.”

Marilyn Hrnjak, executive chief deputy in the Lake County Clerk’s office, said that as with any change, there likely will be glitches and difficulties. “Just getting everyone adjusted to change, there’s a mental adjustment that has to take place.”

She believes people will embrace e-filing when they realize how much of their time, staff time and paper is saved. “It’s a very good thing, in my opinion.”

Hannah regularly presents a continuing legal education program on e-filing. She started it just for mass-tort litigators but, this year, she opened it to everyone. “A lot of the comments I received were, ‘When can we e-file everything?’”

The Division of State Court Administration plans to begin implementing e-filing in phases next year. Court of Appeals Judge Paul Mathias is taking a lead role in the effort and said paper filing likely will be phased out so clerks won’t be burdened with overseeing two filing methods.

“This is really a result and a culmination of more than a decade of review and testing,” Mathias said.

Janell-Smiley-SC-case-manager-15col.jpg Supreme Court case manager Janell Smiley works on the 28-year-old computer system used to track appellate cases. The e-filing order also includes upgrading that system. (IL Photo/Dave Stafford)

“It’s been quite positive. The clerks really like it,” Hrnjak said of Lake County’s pilot. “I would say, overall, I consider it a change for the better.”

In Lake County, e-filing is mandatory in mortgage foreclosure cases and optional for small claims. Hrnjak said e-filing is popular among attorneys who file numerous collection or landlord/tenant cases, for instance.

She said statistics bear out the popularity. Since e-filing came online in Lake County, more than 234,000 filings have been made with an estimated 3.4 million pages electronically filed. That is equal to a stack of paper more than 1,150 feet high – roughly as tall as a 90-story building.

Marion County has mandatory e-filing for its docket of asbestos cases, said Hannah, whose court handles mass torts, many of which are filed electronically. Those cases may be e-filed by mutual consent, and that’s been the case for State Fair stage collapse litigation and others.

“Usually in (mass torts) you would have voluminous paper filings that stress the court’s ability to handle all the paper,” Hannah said. “You’re talking boxes and boxes.”

Marion County also allows e-filing for collections and mortgage foreclosure cases, she said.

E-filing will come with fees, but specific amounts are not known yet. Lake and Marion counties set different pricing structures for their pilots. In Marion County, mortgage foreclosure filing and service costs $55, and collections filing and notice costs $35. Costs vary for mass torts. In Lake County, attorneys pay an $80 annual registration fee ($200 for commercial users) and are charged $17.50 per case filing.

“The e-file charge associated with mandatory e-filing should be less than the cost for a county engaged in a voluntary e-filing program. We would expect our litigants to benefit from the economies of scale,” Hannah said.

State Court Administration soon will seek competitive bids for a single statewide e-filing manager, according to information provided by the courts. Mathias said it’s anticipated that the system will be supported by fees, and filers will have a choice of e-filing service providers that will be certified by the court.

Mathias said competition among market providers also is expected to keep fees low, and the courts will strive to build in fee waivers and make the system accessible for indigent litigants.

“We’re really excited to bring this level of connectivity” to court users, Mathias said. “It’s the same level of connectivity people have gotten used to in the last decade.”

Litigants still may be allowed to file on paper, according to the proposed rules, upon court approval on a showing of good cause.

The initiative coincides with a planned conversion of appellate courts to the state-supported Odyssey case management system now in use in courts in 48 counties. Robert Rath, director of appellate court technology, said the conversion will allow attorneys and the public to view trial and appellate case dockets on the same site.

That’s good news for Janell Smiley, a case manager for the Indiana Supreme Court who’s used a 28-year-old, MS-DOS-based computer system to track cases during her nine years on the job.

The current system requires duplication, coding and entries that just aren’t required in Odyssey, she said.

“I think one of the things we’re looking forward to in the Odyssey program is it will do some things for us,” Smiley said.•

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