The Pennsylvania Supreme Court took the next step into the information age last week when electronic filing became an option.
The Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts plans to make e-filing an option for cases in the intermediate appellate courts — the Superior and Commonwealth courts — sometime in 2013, said Supreme Court Justice J. Michael Eakin, the liaison justice for technology in the Pennsylvania courts.
One of the biggest changes with e-filing in the Supreme Court is that parties can now file at any time of day.
The courthouse will be open virtually 24 hours a day, Eakin said, and the general rule is that electronic filings will be considered received on time as long as they are e-filed by 11:59 p.m. on the day on which they need to be received.
“So far as filing date, it’s when the button is pushed in the lawyer’s office,” Eakin said. “That’s almost instantaneous.”
Charles “Chip” Becker, an appellate attorney with plaintiffs firm Kline & Specter, said that with e-filing, lawyers will no longer face having to truncate the time they spend preparing their filings in order to make sure they leave enough time for their filings to be received physically by the appellate court prothonotaries before filing deadlines expire.
“It’s much easier to effectuate filing through an electronic system than if I have to deal with all the logistics of filing papers in a physical office,” said Becker, who was one of the attorneys who tested the e-filing system during its beta phase.
E-filing also could improve the transmission of trial court records, Becker said, because sometimes not everything from down below gets transferred to the appellate courts.
Karl Baker, the chief of the Defender Association of Philadelphia’s appellate unit, said that as his unit tested e-filing during its experimental stage, it has seen its expenses in paper supplies and running copiers reduced as well as the unit’s workload in serving filings reduced.
“It has saved us a lot of footwork and production for both what gets filed and what gets served,” Baker said.
E-filers are still being required to submit one hard copy of any of their filings. Eakin said that is being required because when the Supreme Court justices travel for oral argument sessions, it is hard to pack up dozens of briefs and the hard copies will be available as a resource for the prothonotaries to provide briefs for the justices when sitting on the bench.
Joseph A. Del Sole, chair of the Appellate Court Procedural Rules Committee’s group working on e-filing and a former Superior Court judge, said some lawyers interviewed about e-filing in their jurisdictions were not happy with their systems. The attorneys were not happy because of concerns that their filings might be considered untimely if the electronic copies were received by court clerks but hard copies were not received, or if hard copies were received but the electronic copies were somehow delayed, Del Sole said.
There are “a lot of little details that lawyers are always concerned about,” Del Sole said.
The court is using a flexible approach in the beginning about enforcing the rules regarding e-filing.
While the Supreme Court has adopted a general rule “authorizing the development of electronic filing for appellate courts,” Eakin said, “the way the electronic filing will be initially handled [is] through administrative order, as opposed to a specific set of rules governing electronic filing because we want to see how these things work out. It is easier to problem-solve through an administrative order than a rule-making process.”
The plan is for the Pennsylvania Rules of Appellate Procedure to be amended in the future to incorporate procedures related to electronic filing and service of documents.
While the new system will likely reduce the post office and messenger service bills for parties, the court will likely face more costs in paper toner and clerical time to print out filings at their end, Eakin said. The court may assess an extra charge for e-filing depending upon what those costs turn out to be because “we don’t want to cost the taxpayer more” for costs that used to be borne by litigants,” Eakin said.
There will be computers in the offices of each of the prothonotaries so pro se filers can use optional e-filing, Eakin said.
Redaction of sensitive information will not be addressed until later and documents will not be available to the public on the Web until the second phase of e-filing, according to the AOPC.
A policy about redaction of data on filings must be developed “so the security of the public is maintained,” Del Sole said. In making sure people’s personal data is secure, “we are talking about appeals in family law cases, business cases, personal injury cases” and records that may include Social Security numbers and credit card numbers, Del Sole said.
Hugh J. Burns Jr., chief of the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office’s appellate unit, said that after testing the system during the pilot phase in his unit, it works as advertised.
While Burns said he thinks the system is advantageous for filing routine things such as when prosecutors are documenting that they are not responding in particular cases, Burns said he would still prefer hard-copy confirmation from the prothonotaries “because getting an email is insubstantial.”
The AOPC “not only produced a good software product but did a great job at supporting the product and supporting the people using it,” Becker said.
Details of e-filing:
•The e-filing system is open to both attorneys and pro se litigants.
•The system is called the PACFile System.
•Attorneys and parties who have established accounts will get service of electronic filings automatically.
•Electronic filers must submit one paper version of their filings within seven days of their electronic filings.
•Service of electronic filings still must be made on attorneys or parties on the opposite side who have not set up e-filing accounts.
•Electronic filings can be accessed at http://ujsportal.pacourts.us.