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.

Over the past several years, court technology has gone through many changes. Most notable is the drive to facilitate the electronic filing of documents by using open-source solutions. Many people have led separate projects that attempted to provide a blueprint for proper electronic integration with court case management systems (CMSes). To date, large-scale success has not been demonstrated in the legal electronic filing industry, although many small projects have shown promise. All of this may be about to change, however, as the federal and state court systems start to embrace and support open-source software.

Each year, approximately 90 million cases are filed in the 17,500 courts in the United States. These cases generate more than 1.5 billion documents. Aside from the environmental impact, this creates a mountain of paperwork for court staffs. In addition, storage and indexing costs associated with archiving and retrieving documents are high. Many courts are starting to look toward integrated electronic systems to cut down on the quantity of paperwork and streamline day-to-day operations. Most courts now use some form of computer-based case management system or document management system (DMS).

The idea behind electronic court filing is to allow lawyers and the general public to submit documents to the court over the Internet. Law firms already generate an electronic version of any document they plan to file with a court. When filed electronically, the document automatically is placed in a DMS, and the pertinent case information is placed in a CMS.

The current accepted model of how filings should be generated and passed to a court involves three major components. The first is an electronic filing service provider (EFSP), the organization responsible for constructing an electronic legal filing. There could be many of these organizations in any given legal jurisdiction, all competing for a per-filing fee paid by lawyers and pro se litigants (people who represent themselves in court) who use their service. The second component is an electronic filing manager (EFM). The EFM has a one-to-one relationship with a court. All EFSPs that offer the ability to file documents with a specific court need to communicate with that court's EFM. Court personnel use the EFM to review filed documents to ensure that any court-specific rules have been followed. The final component is an adapter that communicates between the EFM and the court's CMS and DMS systems. This adapter relays the documents and case information associated with the filing to the court's information systems. Figure 1 shows the organization of this model.

Figure 1. Transferring and Submitting Filings

A major hurdle to providing this type of functionality is that almost every CMS used by courts today has been customized on some level to fit specific needs of individual courts. Many courts even have developed their own custom solutions in-house. These differences require the EFM to CMS and DMS adapters to be rewritten for every court. In response to this problem, many court professionals have pushed for an industry-endorsed standard for transmitting data between legal systems. Winchel “Todd” Vincent III, founder of Legal XML, stated: “Having an agreed-upon specification to use can greatly reduce the amount of work required to provide complicated system integration. It allows for all involved parties to work on the problem together, instead of reinventing the wheel over and over again.” In addition to an industry standard, there also is a drive to provide an open-source EFM.

Legal XML Is Founded

In November 1998, Legal XML was established as a nonprofit organization. The goal was to provide open, nonproprietary technical specifications for exchanging legal documents and to organize the related information. It attracted participants from private industry, other nonprofit organizations, government and academia. Legal XML originally produced a DTD-based specification, which eventually was used to help courts exchange information by way of XML.

Georgia Interoperability Project

The completeness of the Legal XML 1.0 specification was put to the test when the Georgia Court Automation Committee (GCAC) used it during an interoperability pilot project. This project acted as a proof of concept for the electronic filing approach previously described. The first standards-based electronic filings to occur in the nation were a result of this project. Filings were generated and received through systems run by different software providers, proving the feasibility of interoperability based on open standards. Both federal agencies and state courts actively followed the project.

The interoperability phase of this project consisted of three EFM installations. Two of the EFMs facilitated filings with county superior courts; the other EFM interfaced with a county state court. Three providers managed the individual EFMs. Four companies provided EFSP interfaces that were used successfully to file with all three EFMs. Between January 2003 and January 2004, more than 1,000 filings were processed electronically. The project was considered a success. Since its completion, several law enforcement agencies in Georgia now file electronically on a daily basis.

After the Georgia Interoperability project, integration challenges led to talk of an open-source solution, and the topic started to spread among the electronic filing community. The National Center for State Courts (NCSC) led the way and was one of open source's bigger proponents, releasing an open-source EFM, inCounter, using the standard Linux, Apache, MySQL, Perl/Python/PHP (LAMP) approach. inCounter was designed to be a demonstrative application to showcase electronic filing capability and to promote an open-source solution. counterclaim, Inc., the company this author works with, concurrently released OpenEFM, a 100% Java application.

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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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