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Signing court documents in ink and delivering hard copies to the clerk may soon go the way of the quill pen if the federal court succeeds in expanding its electronic filing system. Judges in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania recently moved to push the Electronic Case Filing system into further acceptance among area attorneys by approving an amendment to Rules 5.1.2 to 5.1.4 of the district’s Local Rules of Civil Procedure and Rule 1.2 of the Local Rules of Criminal Procedure. The rules, published this month, edge the court closer to paperless procedure and will take effect in January after a comment period. Under the amended rules, all attorneys practicing before the district court will have to submit their filings on disk in portable document format in addition to submitting paper copies. Attorneys must also complete a form authorizing an electronic signature code to replace their written signatures on the filings. Only 1,300 lawyers, or 4 percent of attorneys listed in the district court’s attorney database, have filed documents directly through ECF since May, said Michael E. Kunz, clerk of court for the Eastern District. He said he expects that number to increase as his office trains more attorneys and legal support staff how to use the ECF system and as law firms adopt the PDF technology. “The system virtually takes the clerk’s office filing system into the lawyer’s office,” Kunz said. Use of the system appears to be expanding, according to statistics cited by Kunz. Last month, 34 percent of documents filed in district court came in through the ECF system or on a disk in PDF, Kunz said. That was the third-highest percentage of electronically submitted documents out of the 32 district courts participating in the ECF program nationally, he said. Kunz said he hopes that asking attorneys to convert paper documents to PDF will encourage more of them to use the online system. Staff in the clerk’s office converted more than 190,000 documents — just under 3 million docket entries — into PDF over Memorial Day weekend so that attorneys can file documents related to criminal cases back to July 1990 and civil cases back to July 1992, Kunz said. Exceptions to what can be posted through ECF include initial filings, such as complaints and indictments. The initial filings require the manual processing of a filing fee and the assigning of a number and judge to each case, Kunz said. The computers aren’t doing that yet. The PDF version becomes the original court document, with the exception of initial filings, and the hard copy submitted simultaneously is used as a backup version, Kunz said. “This minimizes the deluge of paper we’re required to process,” Kunz said. Documents submitted in PDF are entered into the ECF system, an electronic case management and docketing system that the district court brought online in May. The system allows registered users to access documents at any time of day through PACER, the federal judiciary’s online public access service. The Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts began the ECF project in 1997, and 32 district courts around the country have become participants since then, Kunz said. The Middle District of Pennsylvania launched its system in July. It’s not mandatory for attorneys to register for the ECF system, which enables them to directly post PDF versions of most filings online. But with the new rules, it is mandatory for attorneys to submit their documents in PDF. With the PDF requirement, the court is giving lawyers an alternative to filing through the ECF system, even though Kunz said the court’s first goal is to have them file documents through ECF. “If they don’t have the capacity to do that, we’d like them to submit the disk,” he said. Rick Sabol, assistant operations manager, said the clerk’s office would probably prefer its personnel to continue to track case assignments even with the new system. “There are steps we take that, if attorneys were doing them, it would be too hard to keep track of,” Sabol said. “We have to ‘quality control’ the process to make sure what the attorneys are putting down is correct.” An amendment to Rule of Civil Prodecure 5.1.3 will allow personal identifiers such as Social Security numbers, birth dates and financial account numbers to be partially redacted by attorneys before electronic filing to protect citizens’ privacy. All grand jury matters, qui tam cases and sealed cases are excluded from the provisions of the electronic filing amendment. Habeas corpus petitions, state court records, proceeding transcripts and discovery material are among the types of documents excluded. If attorneys do not have the appropriate software or hardware for conversion of paper documents to PDF, a computer is available for that purpose at the clerk’s offices in Philadelphia and Allentown. When the clerk’s office, which is already encouraging PDF filings, receives a paper document without a disk, it notifies the attorney and asks him or her to submit a PDF version, Sabol said. “Some say they just don’t have the capabilities to do this,” he said. “We accept it anyway to protect the rights of the individual citizens who are filing.” But amended Rule 5.1.4(a) does require attorneys to explain to the clerk’s office in writing why they cannot provide the material on disk. While the electronic filing rules will create more work for attorneys and their staff, they also will provide easier access to more information, said Alan Epstein of Spector Gadon & Rosen, whose attorneys are registered with the ECF system. “Most practitioners have the technology at this point — even small-firm practitioners,” Epstein said. Originally, Epstein said, he was nervous about the security of filing documents online. But, he said, “I’ve been assured by my technology people that my fears are unwarranted.” Judge Anita B. Brody, chairwoman of the Eastern District’s information technology committee, said she looks forward to the time when all documents, including complaints, can be filed using ECF. “It’s one more step in the right direction,” she said. “It’s helpful to judges and lawyers to have everything on ECF and to be able to pull it up and read it without searching for the hard copy,” Brody said.

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