An Open-Source System for Electronic Court Filing

State and federal courts in the US are standardizing on XML for court documents and on open-source management systems to store and index them.
Why Open Source Is a Good Solution

Open-source software is a good technical solution to the electronic filing problem. In many open-source projects, forming an active development and support community is often difficult. However, a large number of developers currently are spread throughout courthouses across the United States. This loose-knit community can be organized within the US judicial system. These IT staffers share the same challenge of solving similar electronic filing problems. Because courts are noncompeting entities, the standard problems regarding intellectual property should evaporate in favor of collaborative community solutions.

Open source also provides a good economic solution to problems related to courthouse operational costs. Many courts are strapped for cash. Purchasing industry-specific proprietary solutions from large corporations often can be very costly. Although open-source software does not mean free software, it reduces up-front costs. Courts still incur costs associated with installing software, teaching people how to use it and customizing the open-source solution to fit their unique needs. Also, as with any software solution, ongoing maintenance is needed. Today, many large companies, in addition to selling software, also act as consultants to courts, charging large sums of money for services extolling proprietary solutions. Open-source solutions can cut these costs.

Open source is also a great benefit for court personnel, allowing them to evaluate the feasibility of a solution before making a commitment. Nothing prevents an IT technician in any court from downloading the open-source EFM code and playing with it to determine whether the software meets the court's needs. On the other hand, proprietary software often is not available for a complete evaluation until the court has committed to a contract. This can lead to problematic situations and can leave the court with little control over timelines and final costs.

NCSC Conference Exposure

The 2002 biennial eCourt Conference, hosted by NCSC, was a watershed moment, as open-source solutions were spotlighted. During the conference, counterclaim's OpenEFM and the NCSC's inCounter were demonstrated and exposed to the larger legal community. Hundreds of decision-makers from both federal and state courts all across the country, along with foreign representatives, witnessed the power of the open-source model. The information presented led to spirited discussions regarding the virtues of open source within the legal industry.

Legal XML Moves to OASIS

About the time of the beginning of the Georgia Interoperability pilot project, the Legal XML organization went through several changes. As with any large project, internal organizational issues existed. These issues resulted in the decision by the founder of Legal XML to leave the group. After this event, it was proposed that the Legal XML group move under the umbrella of the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards (OASIS), a not-for-profit global consortium dedicated to promoting development, implementation and acceptance of electronic business standards. The OASIS Legal XML Member Section is made up of representatives from both commercial software companies and governmental court organizations. The founder of Legal XML, Winchel “Todd” Vincent III, and Legal XML itself, both continue to provide valuable and significant contributions in the area of electronic court filing.

California Second-Generation Electronic Filing

In October 2002, the California Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) decided it was time to define a standard for electronic filing and data exchange for California courts. This project is called the Second-Generation Electronic Filing Specification (2GEFS). Vincent spearheads this effort, together with a group of participating software companies and selected California courts. Over the course of several months, specifications were produced by a group of knowledgeable participants. Recently, the draft XML Schema-based specifications have been made available publicly for comment by the state of California.

A unique technical aspect that the 2GEFS specifications provides is the concept of a well-defined Schema framework. This notion came from the recognition that courts may need to modify data elements slightly to fit their specific needs. An example of this might be the way a person is defined by the specification. One court may need to include such information as a list of identifiable scars, tattoos and birthmarks, whereas another court may not care to capture this information. The Schema framework approach creates a decentralized framework of strictly versioned schemas. Each schema lives in its own namespace and can be published on multiple servers. This ensures that all past versions of Schemas are available, and XML instance documents representing filings can use older Schemas to validate against as needed. This allows courts to use slightly customized Schemas and put them in their own namespace under their own control.

These specifications also are out for public comment, and several companies are working on incorporating them into court filing software. The specifications are covered under a modified General Public License. Christopher Smith, the current overseer of the 2GEFS Project, had the following to say about its success: “We're very pleased with the specifications we have produced. Aside from being easy to understand and well documented, we feel that they can be a tremendous contribution to the electronic court filing industry. We are encouraging all interested parties to see what California has to offer.”

Proof-of-concept implementations of the 2GEFS specifications have been created, and an interoperability-testing phase is scheduled to last until the middle of 2004. Throughout this project, the state of California is working with a number of local courts to integrate their electronic filing systems.

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Software Option for Legal CMS

Ken Montenegro's picture

Pika, pikasoftware.net, has a very good foundation (LAMP) and has a following in NPO legal services. I must admit I don't use it, but that's because we have an albatros of a system we aren't ready to ditch.

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