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Probate first to go to e-filing.

Probate-related filings will be the first area of Florida's court system to go to a new legislatively mandated electronic filing system.

Officials from the court system and clerks of courts have been meeting over the summer and said they have agreed the best place to start with e-filing is with probate courts. (Two counties--Broward and Pasco--have existing electronic filing for probate issues.)


"This was done after speaking with a number of people who would have an interest and information to provide," said 11th Circuit Judge Judith Kreeger, chair of the Supreme Court's Technology Commission.

"It was clear we couldn't do e-filing everywhere, because neither the clerks nor we have the money to do that.

"With probate going first, it's the smallest division of the court. It's a group of lawyers who are really chomping at the bit to go there, and they've done their homework. That was one of the determining factors. It's a transition to a whole different way of doing business and building the infrastructure and the rules that go along with it."

The Florida Bar has gotten involved, with the Bar approving a grant of around $23,000, with the Real Property, Probate, and Trust Law Section putting up one-third of those funds. The money will pay for meetings of the special work group that is drawing up the standards and the nuts-and-bolts details for the probate filing system.

The fevered activity follows legislative action earlier this year that mandated that electronic filing with statewide access be implemented this fiscal year.

It required the Supreme Court to set out standards to be followed by July 1 (which the court did, see story in the July 15 Bar News) and with court clerks to begin implementing a system on October 1, with a progress report to legislative leaders on March 1.

In this case, implementation does not mean that probate e-filing will be up and running by October 1, although court and clerk officials say they are making quick progress.

Kreeger said the Probate E-filing Work Group, which she appointed as a subcommittee of the technology commission, met for two days the last week of August. The group is planning to meet in October when it hopes to finish its necessary preliminary work.

"Their purpose is to update the data elements and the functional standards for probate e-filing," Kreeger said. Or in layman's terms, the panel is determining what kind of information--parties' names, filing attorney, amount of the case, etc.--will be required to be provided, and how it will be collected, stored, and made available.

On a parallel track, officials are working to set up the Internet "portal," or the online access point for e-filing and electronic access to court records.

State Courts Administrator Lisa Goodner said a committee has been working on preparing bids for potential vendors. Again, budget restrictions are playing a role.

"The trick is that we are looking for a vendor that would be willing to provide the portal service at no charge in exchange for being able to prepare and sell value-added packages to law firms [using the portal]," Goodner said.

"What we are trying to do is get the work on the portal bid up and working and also set standards for probate filing for those clerks who have packages up and running."

John Neukamm, chair of the Real Property, Probate and Trust Law Section, said the section agreed to help pay for in-person meetings of the probate work group because of the importance of the issue. Section members are actively involved with and serve as members of the group.

"You can't really get something this complex resolved in a teleconference," he said

Randy Long, director of research and analysis for the Florida Association of Court Clerks and Comptrollers, said that organization is working to coordinate both among clerks themselves and with the court system.

"We've been working with the courts to go through the issues relative to filing electronically probates, wills, and trusts, working to identify data elements to be captured," he said, adding the association will spend September working with clerks on the technical aspects of the e-filing issues.

"Part of the challenge that we're dealing with is the court identifying the data elements that they want captured and how to do that in an electronic filing process," Long said.

Despite the rush and the huge amount of work necessary, Melvin Cox, the information technology director for the FACC, said lawyers will see a real benefit to e-filing.

"When it's filed electronically, the filing process and the paper is processed much quicker," Cox said. "It doesn't have to be converted from paper to an electronic form. It's a much smoother process."

Bar Board of Governors member Laird Lile attended the two-day technical meeting in August, representing the RPPTL Section.

"I was very impressed with how everyone seems to be pulling with an oar in the same direction," he said.

Lile cautioned that the technical challenges and amount of work to be done remains extensive, so final implementation may be a ways off--a judgment Kreegers shares.

She said there are many steps remaining before e-filing is operational, first for probate and then for the entire court system. Each clerk, along with the circuit's chief judge, must file a plan with the technology commission. There it will be reviewed by an e-filing committee chaired by 18th Circuit Chief Judge Manuel Menendez and then the full commission.

There are already about 17 pilot e-filing projects around the state, including a longstanding one in Manatee County and the two probate programs in Broward and Pasco. Kreeger said those will have to conform to the updated e-filing standards eventually adopted by the commission.

Setting the standards isn't easy. She noted data elements for a uniform standard were approved four or five years ago. But since then, laws have changed and technology updated, and those standards are outmoded and need revising, she said.

Then everyone has to be made familiar with the system, Kreeger said.

"Part of the consideration in going step-by-step is it involves training for everybody. It's training for the clerks; it's training for the courts and court staff; it's training for the judges; it's training for the lawyers; it's training for all court users who have to go along with it," she said.

But the end result will be worth it.

"The goal is that if you're a lawyer or individual in whatever county of the state, you can use the same program to file something electronically in every other part of the state," Kreeger said. "From the lawyers' point of view, it means the lawyer who is filing the probate action can use the same software to file in Duval County or Miami-Dade County, or wherever in the state."

By Gary Blankenship

Senior Editor
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Title Annotation:electronic filing system
Author:Blankenship, Gary
Publication:Florida Bar News
Geographic Code:1U5FL
Date:Sep 15, 2009
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