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Pro se forms for the portal being worked on.

A project to make guided, do-it-yourself legal forms for simple legal matters available on the Florida court system's statewide e-filing portal is getting close to posting its first set of instructions--for landlord/tenant cases--with pleadings for 13 other case types in the pipeline.

Landlord/tenant questions and forms have completed a 90-day test period on the portal's test site and are now ready for a final review by the Supreme Court's Judicial Management Council before going to the Supreme Court for final approval, after which they will be available through the portal.

The Office of the State Courts Administrator recently updated the Florida Courts Technology Commission on the DIY project. The effort is being overseen by the JMC, OSCA, and the Florida Court Clerks & Comptrollers.

In the development process are 112 forms covering 12 other case types, according to Rose Patterson, OSCA's chief of court education and improvement. She gave the DIY update to the FCTC and later spoke with the Bar News.

The effort takes advantage of the portal software, which when it was originally acquired by the FCCC (before the portal was even created) included the capability to handle what is called Access to Justice (A2J), a program specifically designed to handle DIY filings.

"A2J is software created by the University of Chicago," Patterson explained. "It's free to legal aid providers, courts, and others to do this work."

The DIY program is frequently likened to the popular TurboTax software.

"It asks the litigants questions, the litigants answer the questions," Patterson said. "In the background is a document assembly engine that extracts the information and puts it in a document."

That finished document is ready for filing through the portal. (Separately from the portal, the Supreme Court has a wide variety of approved forms already online--and downloaded about 2.5 million times annually --for pro se litigants, but the parties must download the forms, and then fill them out and file them on their own.)

Besides landlord/tenant, other areas --many family law related--being addressed are small claims; simplified dissolution; dissolution; dissolution with children; dissolution with property and no children; modification of alimony; child support and parenting plans; temporary support; temporary custody; paternity and disestablishment of paternity; name changes for adults, children, and families; stepparent adoption for adults and children; and interpersonal violence (domestic, repeat, dating, and sexual violence and stalking).

"We actually have at OSCA folks who are programming in A2J Author [the programming software] the interviews. So when we say we have 112 pleadings in 13 case types, that's the stuff that they're working on," Patterson said.

She added family law cases make up about 40 percent of all cases in Florida and a high percentage have one or more parties doing self representation, hence the large number of DIY subjects addressed there. Another frequent occurrence is parties who start family litigation with a lawyer but finish it on their own, Patterson said.

"Our priority throughout the project, and I emphasize this, is ultimately to assist self -represented litigants but you have to focus on due process, fairness, and legal sufficiency," Patterson said. "Fairness is a big issue with us, you wouldn't want pleadings out there for only one side of a case."

After landlord/tenant, next up for testing and approval will be small claims--"We have developed an interview for the statement of claims and the answer," according to Maggie Lewis, court operations consultant. Those will be followed, she said, by simplified dissolution forms. The interview questions for those areas will soon be posted on the portal's test site where they can be reviewed and comments made.

When questions are being drafted, litigants, attorneys, judges, clerks, court staff, and others all have input, Patterson said. The drafters also work closely with FCCC staff who will ultimately install the questions into the portal.

Patterson said there is a defined process for creating the forms; there are eight steps (recently reduced from 10) for non-family forms and 10 (recently reduced from 12) for family law forms. She added, "There's a review protocol that's pretty rigorous."

A couple of features have defined the effort to get the portal forms ready. One is, as Paul Flemming, a spokesperson for OSCA noted, that neither OSCA nor the FCCC got any legislative appropriations or extra funding from any source to work on the DIY process.

The other, according to Deputy State Courts Administrator Blan Teagle, is the court was determined that forms be available to all sides of a dispute and that the documents be thorough and accurate from the start.

"At the outset for this project, one of the things the Supreme Court wanted us to do was develop a resource for self-represented litigants that would not cost self-represented litigants any money and they wanted us to release resources that would service multiple parties in a case," he said. "We wouldn't just provide something for a landlord to initiate a lawsuit if we were not providing something to a tenant that is responsive."

The Supreme Court Family Law Workgroup reviews family law forms and the Access Workgroup of the Judicial Management Council addresses other areas and the full JMC also oversees the process.

"Ultimately, the court gets to determine when it's ready to go live," Patterson said.

Landlord/tenant, after getting positive feedback and suggestions for improvements during its test phase, is set to be reviewed by the JMC next month and approved for sending to the court. Interview questions have been finished for small claims, short financial disclosure, parenting plans, marital separation agreements, and child support guidelines worksheets and the FCCC is working to get those posted into the portal's test site for trials. (As part of the streamlining to get new forms online, the testing period has been shortened to 15 days.)

The portal DIY project is one of several efforts around the state to help low-income and self-represented litigants with their legal problems and guarantee access to the courts. But while many efforts are local programs run by clerks, legal aid agencies, or local courts, the portal project is a centralized statewide system available to anyone with a computer or portable electronic device. Teagle and Patterson said the DIY project should integrate well into many of those existing programs providing an extra, rather than a competing, resource.

"The court wanted to create an interactive interview that could result in these customized pleadings that would have been through some type of rigorous review process and would be subject to an implementation that included the court's approval," Teagle said.

"As a litigant, you have an assurance that just as when you use the Supreme Court-approved forms, when you use these court-approved DIY forms you should have a document legally sufficient to get in the door with your case."

By Gary Blankenship

Senior Editor
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Author:Blankenship, Gary
Publication:Florida Bar News
Date:Sep 15, 2018
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