Texas converts 254 county courts to e-filing

It may be hard to imagine any process still being paper-based these days, but that’s how the legal system worked in Texas until recently.

“Before we had e-filing in the state, everything was very much paper-based,” said David Slayton, executive director of the Texas Office of Court Administration (OCA). "And that meant basically attorneys and litigants who represent themselves having to deliver documents to the court in paper form."

Legal parties had to mail or hire someone to courier documents to the courthouse, and clerks then had to process the paper and get copies to judges. Ensuing orders were also routed via paper.

There was also the issue of storing all that paper. “Of course any document that was filed with the court was filed and stuck in some file room or warehouses for older files,” Slayton said.

Then, at 12:01 a.m. on Jan. 1, 2014, a man in Dallas filed documents electronically from a New Year’s Eve party directly to a Houston court, marking the first mandatory e-filing in the state. Today, all of the state’s 254 counties use eFileTexas, a standard platform mandated by the Texas state Supreme Court in 2012 to cover all civil cases in district, statutory county, constitutional county and statutory probate courts.

A clerk now clicks “accept” and transfers the file to the court’s case management system.  And no more need for rooms and rooms of paper storage.

A month before the mandate, OCA announced plans to implement mandatory e-filing and contracted with Tyler Technologies, a Plano, Texas-based provider of information management solutions for local governments. EFileTexas was deployed in phases starting with the 10 largest counties and adding more every six months.

Originally given a deadline of being fully operational by July 1, 2016, the system is up and running in all counties, although two sets of counties will move from voluntary to mandatory e-filing in January and July 2016.

Specifically, Texas uses Tyler’s Odyssey for Courts system, an integrated solution that includes the Guide and File element, which helps self-represented filers understand the court process. The approach is three-pronged. The first step is to be a “one-stop to file into any court, which is over 560 offices in the state,” said Brian McGrath, Tyler’s vice president of e-solutions and Texas business operations. “There’s only one portal to file at any one of those offices.”

From there, the e-filing manager system accepts and distributes files to the appropriate courts, where clerks can review them. Files ultimately land in courts’ case management systems.

E-filing includes not only the delivery of court documents in a PDF format, but also case information and all payments, McGrath added.

The e-filing process for attorneys typically takes two to five minutes, McGrath said. Most use word-processing software to generate their document and then convert it to a PDF. After they hit submit, the document and payment information go through a secure, cloud-based system to a consolidated centralized system that Tyler owns and operates on behalf of the state, McGrath said.

“We check that information, make sure it conforms to technical standards and rules of the court,” he added. “We make it available for courts to then review so they can make a decision to either accept that document, so it can flow into the court system, or they can return [it].”

After 35 days, Tyler no longer saves the information. “It's not our data. It's the official record of the court at that point,” McGrath said.

The state didn’t migrate any data over to eFileTexas. Once a court implements the system, all filings must be electronic from then on, Slayton said. All the courts needed to use the platform was Internet access, computers capable of processing the documents and local storage networks to store the e-files.

“This meant in some places there had to be some upgrades to the network speed, for instance,” he said. “When thousands of documents are coming in a day in Harris County, [the state’s most populous county], obviously the speed to process those needs to be sufficient. Most counties were in a place where they had sufficient Internet speed to do that.”

And because the system is web-based, users can access it remotely and via mobile devices.

E-filing has had several benefits, including saving costs by reducing the amount of physical storage space required and increasing efficiency.

“No longer do they have to have a paper case file on somebody’s desk before they can perform their work or some sort of action,” McGrath said. “At the end of the day, what that means for a general citizen is not only better access to justice, but also lower tax dollars just by way of those general operational efficiencies for the courts.”

Looking forward, Slayton said, OCA will start e-filing for criminal and juvenile delinquency cases as well. In fact, that already started last month in Hidalgo County and will broaden to additional counties next month.

About the Author

Stephanie Kanowitz is a freelance writer based in northern Virginia.

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