The Capital Gazette reports on a loophole in Maryland’s electronic filing system, which allows attorneys to designate documents as “confidential” without filing a separate motion to seal with the court. Using the designation effective prevents interested parties, including the media, from accessing the court filings.
Court documents are presumed to be publicly available, and normally a party must move the court to seal specific documents and provide good reasons for the request. It appears that when Maryland moved to electronic filing in 2014, the system was set up to allow attorneys in cases with exposing sealing orders to designate certain documents as confidential. Lawyers are warned not to designate documents as confidential unless they are covered by a rule or statute. It appears, however, that many documents that should be public have been improperly designated.
The courts do not monitor electronic filing designations on a regular basis, which is probably sensible given the court system’s limited resources. But some greater allocation of resources — either in monitoring or in fixing the electronic loophole — may now be warranted.
Cook County’s efforts to implement an electronic filing system has run into its fair share of obstacles over the past year. Last November, the Courthouse News Service filed suit against the county, alleging that the clerk’s office was delaying the posting of public documents online, in violation of the First Amendment. In December, the Illinois Supreme Court gave the county a six-month extension to implement its e-filing system (half the time the county requested), and ordered it to commit all necessary resources to completing the transition. In January, a judge issued an injunction in the Courthouse News Service case which gave the county 30 days to develop a system that would give the press full access to newly filed cases.
After months of turmoil, the e-filing system is now in place. And people don’t like it. At all.
In theory, e-filing is supposed to increase access to the courts, enabling people without an attorney in civil cases to submit legal documents from a computer instead of trekking to a courthouse. But many paralegals and attorneys who find the mandatory platform confusing worry that it’s not user-friendly for people filing motions on their own. The system, launched July 1 by an Illinois Supreme Court order, also requires registrants to have an email address and an electronic form of payment, something advocates say can create barriers for low-income people.
Cook County Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown said she is working with the vendor, Texas-based Tyler Technologies, to make the platform more intuitive. But the changes need to be approved by the Administrative Office of the Illinois Courts because they are part of a statewide program, Brown said.
“It’s been very challenging and difficult for our users as well as our staff,” Brown said. “We’re really asking our users to be patient.”
From the story:
Microsoft and Strathmore University School of Law have devised a partnership that will see key strides made in the manner East Africa’s judicial systems operate. Named the ‘Policy Innovation Series’, the program targets to digitize the region’s judicial processes, systems, and their overall functions. The policy and discussion are in line with previously set goals that purpose to digitize local systems – an activity that has been tasked to government agencies, the justice system, and the private sector.
The partnership will digitize case management systems, e-filing processes, document management systems and courtroom applications such as audiovisual and transcriptions processes.
The current system involves so much paperwork and manual processing, that merely filing a lawsuit can take three months. Hopefully this program will vastly improve the efficient administration of justice.
In November, the Courthouse News Service filed a federal lawsuit against the Cook County (Illinois) courts, alleging that the county was posting electronically filed complaints days after receiving them, even though the complaints should have been immediately available to the press as public records.
On Monday, the federal court agreed, issuing a preliminary injunction which gives Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown thirty days to develop a system under which the press can gain immediate access to newly filed cases.
I do not envy Dorothy Brown. Late last month, the Illinois Supreme Court rejected her request for a one-year extension of the deadline to align Cook County’s e-filing system with that of the rest of the state. This new decision only turns up the heat on Cook County to develop a functional e-filing system in very short order.
The Illinois Supreme Court has given the Cook County courts a six-month extension to align their civil e-filing systems with the larger state system. The County sought a one-year extension from the original January 1, 2018 deadline. The Court allowed half that time, and instructed the Cook County Clerk to “commit all necessary resources to meet the extended deadline.”
Luzerne County, Pennsylvania is the latest court to transition to electronic filing, and it is finding the same immediate advantages, and the same growing pains, as other state courts around the country. On the plus side, e-filing is easier for attorneys who will no longer have to trek to the courthouse to file or review documents. It will also be easier (and cheaper) for the court system, which will move to a state-run electronic records management system. But the transition may make it harder for media to access information on recent filings. A similar problem led one media outlet to file a lawsuit against the Cook County (Illinois) courts earlier this year, citing First Amendment and transparency concerns.
Almost 30 years after the PACER system was implemented for the federal district courts, and more than 15 years after district court dockets were placed on the web, the U.S. Supreme Court has announced that it will adopt its own electronic filing system. The system goes into effect this November.
The Court’s announcement states that “Once the system is in place, virtually all new filings will be accessible without cost to the public and legal community.” I read that to mean that reviewing and downloading docket materials will be free, which would be an improvement on the costly PACER system. Let’s hope that is what is intended.