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The Toronto courts had a familiar problem. According to Ontario Attorney General Charles Harnic, “The current paper-driven system for filing civil court documents is outdated and costly. With 225,000 documents filed in civil cases each year in Toronto alone, having to go down to court and wait in line-ups to file wastes time, wastes money and bogs the justice system down.”
And so, in August 1997 the Integrated Justice Project of Ontario, together with the bar and the Toronto Region of the Ontario Court (General Division) began a pilot project giving attorneys the option of filing documents electronically. 85 law firms are participating in the pilot project.
The pilot system is based upon the Sustain court management software which was already in use in Toronto for managing their case flow. Sustain is a PC-based system developed by Choice Information Systems which is in use in over 1000 courts in nine states and three countries. Together with Microsoft and PC Docs, the methods were worked out to integrate the law firms’ computer systems with the those in use by the court.
The Los Angeles, California, Superior Court recently announced that it was also implementing electronic document filing using the E-Court system developed by Choice.
Getting on the System
When a firm decides to participate in the Toronto E-Filing Pilot Project, they are provided with a software package containing templates in WordPerfect or Microsoft Word for over 200 different actions from initiating an action through giving jury notice. The package also contains a copy of Microsoft Exchange Client e-mail program. Each firm must then purchase a Sustain Elfkey, an electronic code which must accompany each filing and which identifies the firm to the Sustain case management system at the court.
Creating and Filing Documents
To file a document, the attorney clicks on the E-File menu in either WordPerfect or Microsoft Word and selects the appropriate template. The attorney is prompted to fill in the required information, give the details of the pleading and save the document.
For security purposes, law firms do not connect directly to the court’s computers, but e-mail the pleading to an electronic post office. The post office then forwards the e-mail to the court’s computer. Following two virus scans, the e-mail is opened by the E-Filing computer, which performs a series of quality control steps on the document to ensure it is up to standard. The system then checks the Elfkey to ensure that the law firm is an authorized user. If the filing passes all the checks, the document particulars are added to the Sustain database and the entire document is stored.
Authentication and Service
The document is assigned an authentication number and a confirmation receipt is sent to the filing attorney. Attorneys can then use the network to serve the documents on the other parties. A filed document has a “read-only” status and can be viewed by authorized users of the system.
Results of Pilot and Future Expansion
In the first 11 months of the pilot, the 85 participating firms filed over three thousand documents electronically, with the filings increasing from 38 the first month to over 400 in later months. The participants are currently handling approximately 40% of all their case filings electronically.
Per Rhondda Snari of the Integrated Justice Project (IJP), the pilot has been successful. The Toronto Court will be continuing to refine and expand on the current electronic filing capabilities. Over the next four years, the IJP will be working to electronically link all elements in the Ontario justice system — courts, police, prosecutors, corrections and the private bar. The IJP management team views E-Filing as the cornerstone of their case management project and they will be implementing a province-wide system.