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Two years ago, electronic filing in the Pennsylvania trial courts was a mere experiment. A recent ruling by the state’s Supreme Court has made the experiment a permanent change to the rules of civil procedure. In June 1999, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court allowed for a trial period of 30 months for all county common pleas courts to test e-filing programs and adapt their systems to the new technology. The past 24 months has proved the program’s merits to such an extent that the formerly temporary ruling has been made permanent. The original judgment was created with a “sunset” provision, rescinding the rule in December 2001. Because of the success of the program in many counties and in the interest of efficiency, the high court has decided to make e-filing a fixture effective July 1 rather than wait until the end of the year. Two years ago, Allegheny was the only county in Pennsylvania to experiment with electronic filing. Now, Philadelphia County is working to implement e-filing in its common pleas courts. “Not every judicial district around the state has the capability for e-filing, but the First Judicial District has jumped on board rather quickly and has had much success,” said Frederica Massiah-Jackson, president judge of the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas. “Every aspect of our court is moving along into the 21st century.” Both municipal courts and civil commitment procedures in Common Pleas have implemented pilot programs designed to test the effectiveness and security of e-filing. Because mental health files for civil commitment are impounded and are, therefore, not a matter of public record, extra security is provided to ensure that the information remains private. “For mental health, it is a very secure facility, where for some of the other e-filing, the security issues are not present,” Massiah-Jackson said. “The e-filing is much more accommodating to the types of cases that we are dealing with throughout the court system and especially in mental health.” Under the civil commitment pilot program, outside users are able to plug their information and their case names into the system. In the necessary cases, the users are then able to pick up a digitized certificate with their posted information from court offices, alleviating the lines and the paperwork of the past. The state Supreme Court rules regarding electronic filing allow each county to determine the extent to which it wants to use the technology. With e-filing, attorneys, clients and agencies of the court are able to submit documents in the format of Adobe PDF, WordPerfect for Windows or Microsoft Word for Windows. Individual courts have the option of asking for a hard copy in addition to the electronic filing to ensure accuracy. The Supreme Court committee established that it is up to the local prothonotary to implement the “physical elements of the system,” and, therefore, it is up to the office of the prothonotary to determine the extent to which the files will become electronic. According to Joseph Evers, prothonotary in Philadelphia County, Philadelphia courts are not insisting on a hard copy in their pilot programs and would prefer to keep the transactions as paperless as possible. “Because we are not actually doing it full scale yet, it is my decision that we would like to do it paperless,” Evers said. “For some people that don’t have the mechanism to do it computerized or to do the electronic filing, they could actually do a fax filing that works the same way.” The rationale behind e-filing programs is to create a secure and efficient program that is accessible to everyone who wants to use it. “One of the things we have talked about is having a work station in our office where anyone can file electronically,” Evers said. “We want to make that available to the general public. It’s a convenience for everyone, including us, to not have to take in all that paper.” Other sections of the Philadelphia Common Pleas Court — Orphans Court, Family Court and the Criminal Division — are working on strategies to implement e-filing. Commerce Court is planning to issue a request for a purchase order to obtain an e-filing system. Despite the growing electronic filing programs in Philadelphia courts, many of the counties in the suburbs have not yet switched to electronic filing, nor have they any plans to do so soon. “We’re not moving in that direction,” said Margaret Yokemick, court administrator of Chester County. “It’s just something we have not yet been directed to do.”

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