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E-filing costs go up.

It is costing slightly more to electronically file documents with the Florida court system following a raise in credit card and electronic check fees for using the system's statewide e-filing portal.

The Florida Courts E-Filing Authority at its June 27 meeting voted to raise its credit card convenience fees from 3 to 3.5 percent and the cost for using an electronic check to pay filing fees and costs from $3 to $5 for its 2016-17 budget. That action became effective July 1 with the start of the 2016-17 fiscal year.

The authority vote included initiating discussions with the Supreme Court and the Office of the State Courts Administrator about ways to cover costs of portal operations to make it self-sufficient.

About 33 percent of filers pay via credit card and virtually all of the remainder with electronic checking.

The budget issues with the portal originate with the way the authority was formed. At the time, the court system was looking for ways to establish an electronic document filing system and the Florida Court Clerks & Comptrollers offered to set up the system using computers and software already owned by the clerks.

The result was an interlocal agreement between the courts and the FCCC that created the e-filing authority to oversee the electronic filing system and the statewide portal through which the filing is done. As part of the arrangement, the FCCC agreed to pay the costs for the first five million filings annually. In 2015, there were 14 million filings. The authority contracts with the FCCC to operate the portal.

Aside from the FCCC contribution, the authority also receives credit card convenience and electronic check fees paid by filers. Under the interlocal agreement, that income is required to provide for e-filing, electronic service of documents, and batch filing of documents for state attorneys and public defenders as well as other delineated services at no cost to users beyond those fees. The hike in credit card and electronic check fees is the first since the portal began operations in 2011 and attorneys were required to use it in 2013.

E-filing authority Secretary/Treasurer Tara Green, Clay County clerk of court, presented four budget options to the authority board. One called for accepting Visa (the portal currently only accepts American Express, Discover, and MasterCard); one for continuing with the present charges and credit card companies; one raising the convenience fees to 3.5 percent and the electronic check fee to $5; and one raising those charges to 3.75 percent and $5.25 respectively.

Not making any change would leave a $1 million deficit, even with the FCCC already contributing $671,070 in support, she said. The FCCC would make up that shortfall.

Adding Visa would reduce the deficit to around $231,000, although the exact number would depend on how many filers pay using Visa. The third option, raising the credit card convenience fee to 3.5 percent and the electronic check fee to $5, would produce a surplus of around $523,000, with the FCCC still contributing $671,070. The last option with the higher convenience and electronic check fees would produce around a $214,000 surplus without any FCCC contribution.

Authority member Bob Inzer, Leon County clerk of court, moved the third option, and also to accept Visa and to explore with the court ways to further raise funds to make the portal self-supporting.

"At some point in time, this entity needs to stand on its own two feet," he said. "I want to continue to push for this entity to be self sufficient. This is clearly the premier e-filing system in the country. It was built without cost [to the courts]. We got it on its feet; it's user friendly; it saves attorneys an awful lot of money."

He added that no money generated from e-filing would go for anything but authority expenses and would not go to any county clerk of court's office or the FCCC.

Green noted that a National Center for State Courts study of electronic filing estimated lawyers saved at least $25 for each electronic filing versus paper filing, with the savings coming in paper, postage, printing, courier charges, and other costs.

The FCCC contribution is a sensitive issue because the Legislature has cut clerk budgets, and most clerks are struggling with staff cutbacks and reduced hours. Money spent by the FCCC on portal operations means less money for helping financially strapped clerks.

The interlocal agreement creating the authority allows it to set credit card and electronic check fees similar to other state agencies, to cover the costs of accepting electronic payments.

Authority member John Tomasino, Supreme Court clerk of court, said any higher rates to start shifting more operating costs off the FCCC and to users is a policy change that should be run past both the Supreme Court and the Office of the State Courts Administrator.

The authority approved Inzer's motion to raise the fees and to open conversations with OSCA and the court about further revenue enhancements.

During the first fortnight of the raised fees, no one contacted the e-filing portal's service desk to complain about the higher costs. All portal users, including attorneys, were notified of the increase via email before it went into effect.

By Gary Blankenship

Senior Editor
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Author:Blankenship, Gary
Publication:Florida Bar News
Date:Aug 1, 2016
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