Bar News - October 18, 2013
Court's Corner: NH e-Court Project Delays Small Claims Pilot
By: Kristen Senz
The launch of electronic filing for small claims cases in Concord and Plymouth has been pushed back to late January, at the earliest, as contract negotiations continue between the NH Judicial Branch and two vendors it selected to develop the online system.
The state has been "working feverishly" with one vendor – the one charged with developing a web-based portal for self-represented litigants to file court cases – according to Circuit Court Administrator Gina Apicelli.
The pro se system is now "in the late configuration phase, which means we have a prototype already, and we’re making changes to that," Peter Croteau, manager of NH e-Court Project, said. Once it goes live, attorneys will be able to access the pro se filing system at any time, but the e-court portal designed for attorney and law firm filing will require attorney identification for access, Apicelli said.
The state has not yet signed contracts with either of the software vendors, so the names of the companies have not been revealed. Croteau said he expects a contract will be in place with the vendor developing the pro se system within the next two weeks, but it’s likely that the details of the second contract won’t be ironed out until November.
"We have found that engaging two vendors is more than twice as complicated as engaging one vendor," he said, because it "adds a third layer of complexity." It’s essential that the two vendors agree to share data, a situation that led them to seek additional contractual protection. Croteau said ensuring that the two vendors work together seamlessly is "paramount to our success."
The software vendors are both experienced in providing e-court solutions for other jurisdictions. Commercial, off-the-shelf software (known as COTS, in tech lingo) is the foundation for New Hampshire’s electronic filing system. These programs then must be customized to meet the needs of the state’s legal system and adhere to court rules, Croteau explained.
To assist in the contract negotiations, the state has hired attorneys James Cook and Jason Oster of the law firm Cook, Little, Rosenblatt & Manson in Manchester.
A group of attorneys who helped court officials develop a list of requirements for the e-court filing system have been invited back to assist with testing the software and interface. Jay Niederman is one of the attorneys working with the state on the modifications to the filing system for small claims cases.
"The court has been very transparent and open about everything, but we don’t know what the interface looks like completely," he said, adding that he’s looking forward to a follow-up meeting about the case-filing interface in late November.
"I am concerned about how it’s going to work, not so much with attorneys… but with the average consumer, who may or may not be computer literate, and I know that’s something the court is concerned about too," he added.
Meanwhile, Apicelli said court officials have almost finished developing new procedural rules for small claims cases and for the e-court as a whole. But the rules won’t be sent to the NH Supreme Court and the Supreme Court Rules Committee until the vendor contracts are in place, and any potential conflicts between the rules and the software have been rectified. The rules are tentatively scheduled to go before the court and rules committee for review and approval at the end of the year, she said.
When the software development is nearly complete, the court will hold training sessions at which attorneys and other legal professionals will have the opportunity to try out the software and ask questions.
"We are looking forward to offering in-person tutorials as we get closer," Apicelli said. "We will have sessions where the lawyers can come in and put their fingers on keyboards, and not only the attorneys, but also their office staff."
The Judicial Branch is also reaching out to public librarians throughout the state, in an effort to provide them with training on the pro se e-court filing system. For people who don’t have Internet access at home, public libraries will become logical places to file court cases, and librarians will be a key resource for pro se filers. The court also is creating video tutorials that will be permanently available online for both legal professionals and members of the public.
For more information and updates on the NH e-Court Project, visit the e-Court web page, which is accessible from the NH Judicial Branch home page.