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Soon there will be no more waiting in line to file papers at the Federal Courthouses.
Since January 1996, nine courts have been conducting a pilot program which allows attorneys to file their case documents right from their desks, rather than going to the courthouse. There are currently several hundred attorneys handling approximately 2000 active cases in this manner.
This program, called ECF (Electronic Case Files) Service, is a simple to use system with features for attorneys, the courts and the general public. Currently the system is free, though the Judicial Conference may be imposing user fees in the future. To view how the system works, you can visit any of the court sites listed at the end of the article.
Features for the Public
ECF is an internet-based system which allows users to access a court’s database, search for a case and access its docket. The docket gives the basic case information, the parties and their counsel. It then gives a listing of all the documents filed in the case and allows the user to click on any of the documents to access them. The documents can then be searched, read and printed.
Features for Attorneys
Beyond the basic features that anyone can access, the attorneys can access two other areas of the site — the training area and the filing area. When an attorney has a case which will be using the ECF Service, he can contact the clerk of the court and request access to the system. The attorney will then receive an agreement to sign which includes his authorization for his password and log-in to act as his signature on documents. The attorney is then given a password which gives access to the training area of the site. Once the attorney has demonstrated to the court that he knows how to properly file documents, he can then access the portion of the site which allows someone to file documents electronically.
Serving Documents on Other Parties
As a condition of participating in the ECF program, the parties agree to electronic service of all documents. They designate an e-mail address to which notices can be sent, and the electronic filing system will automatically send notification to all parties of record whenever a document gets filed. Parties can then log onto the system to read the text of the filed document.
Since the documents filed with ECF are easily-accessed public documents, provisions have been made for the handling of confidential documents. When a document is to be filed which the attorney wishes to keep confidential, a paper document is filed with the court. The attorney must then put a notice in the ECF file for the case stating that they have made a manual filing with the court.
Computer System Requirements
Most attorneys already have the basic hardware and software requirements for filing with the system. You will need a computer that operates on Windows or an Apple MacIntosh. You need Adobe Acrobat 3.0 to convert documents from a word processor format into a Portable Document Format (PDF) file. You will need a PDF-compatible word processor (both Word Perfect and Microsoft Word will work). You will need internet access and a Netscape browser. [We also tried using Microsoft Internet Explorer. It would access the websites and the dockets, but would not read the individual documents filed.] If you plan to file exhibits or other non-computer generated documents you will need access to a scanner. If you are just going to read the documents, but not file them, you can use Adobe Acrobat Reader rather than Adobe Acrobat.
The Netscape browser can be downloaded free at www.netscape.com and Adobe Acrobat Reader is available at no charge at www.adobe.com. Acrobat is also available for purchase at the Adobe website or from your favorite software dealer.
Future of ECF
The three-year pilot of ECF will be officially ending in December 1998. Up to this point, ECF has been voluntary, with the exception of the U.S Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of New York which has made it mandatory for all corporate Chapter 11 cases. When the pilot is completed, an evaluation will be done by the Judicial Conference to decide whether to continue using the ECF Service or to go with some other commercially available system.
Per Michael Greenwood, Project Manager for ECF at the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, by 1999 or 2000, additional federal courts will be on line and eventually all of them will be. He advised attorneys to prepare for this now by getting the necessary software and learning how to do electronic filings because this is the direction the federal courts are moving. In two to three years, electronic filing will be mandatory.
For Further Information
You can visit any of the pilot courts’ websites listed below to see how the system works. Most sites allow you to download a copy of their rules for electronic filing. Where two addresses are given for a court, the “ecf” address will take you directly into the ECF system, whereas the “www” address will take you to the court’s home page and you can then access ECF from there.
Courts Involved with Pilot
Following are the courts which are involved with the ECF Service. The most active courts are the bankruptcy courts in California, Georgia and New York which each have over 300 active cases on the system and the New York Eastern District Court with nearly 500 active cases.