Bar News - July 19, 2013
Digital Court to Launch in Four Months
By: Dan Wise
Separate Portals for Pro Se Litigants, Attorneys
While progress remains largely invisible to outsiders, the New Hampshire Judicial Branch is taking major strides toward bringing litigation in the state online within the next three years, starting with small claims cases this fall.
The state budget that took effect July 1 allocates $3.2 million in capital funding to continue the five-year NH e-Court Project that began in 2011.
The NH e-Court Project is scheduled to debut with small claims cases in the Concord and Plymouth courthouses in November, according to project officials. All litigants will be required to file electronically, either at home or on courthouse computers. More than 14,000 small claims cases are filed annually in New Hampshire courts.
Peter Croteau, chief technology officer and NH e-Court Project manager, said two vendors have been accepted to handle different parts of the project, but the names of the companies have not been made public, pending completion of final contract details.
Meanwhile, teams of court administrators have been meeting regularly behind the scenes, documenting and flow-charting every process on the civil side in the trial courts and cutting out unnecessary steps to streamline the workflow.
“We couldn’t just take the process as it was and automate it,” said Circuit Court Administrator Gina Apicelli who, along with Superior Court Administrator Patricia Lenz, is part of the Business Process Reengineering team.
The team has documented internal workflows and is now shifting its focus to mapping out how the system will interact with court users. Work is under way to convert the public side of the process – submitting or responding to a case – into on-screen interfaces and platforms that attorneys and pro se litigants can use to enter information.
Lenz and Apicelli say the software’s menus will be “smart” and will, to the extent possible, be programmed to reject incompatible answers – similar to how tax e-filing forms work. In the family law context, for example, entering a birth date that indicates someone is too old to be considered a minor would immediately be rejected.
“We are striving to get the right answers at the beginning,” Apicelli said, because it will make the entire litigation process more efficient.
The e-Court will have two portals for filing. One will be primarily for pro se filers or attorneys unfamiliar with a particular case type and will provide more guidance. The other will offer less guidance, allowing informed users to progress more quickly through the filing process. Some documents filed with the court, such as petitions composed by the litigants, will be uploaded as attachments. Attorneys will need to be wary that they have not selected an earlier draft or even the wrong file when selecting a document for upload.
Before the small claims process launches the two sites, a set of temporary e-Court rules will be issued and will govern a variety of issues, including when a document is considered “filed,” what kinds of electronic signatures are acceptable, and what happens with regard to deadlines if either the court’s computer system or the litigants’ system goes down.
The small claims process, Lenz says, is the first test of the concept. Lessons from the small claims deployment will be immediately incorporated into the development of the next case types to go online.
Lenz and Apicelli say that once the small claims process goes online, in three to four months, other sites will be added to process small claims cases and then, again each few months, other civil case types from the superior court will start coming online. (Also being incorporated are the new civil procedure rules, which take effect Oct. 1.)
Litigants will not be the only ones in transition. The judges’ bench will eventually be home to a computer terminal, and judicial officers will have to learn how to do some of their tasks immediately online, instead of writing on documents and inputting information later. Lenz said judges vary in their technical prowess and, in different courts, how the judge’s actions are entered into the system will vary as well.
Croteau, calm and methodical, advises patience, even as big changes loom. His professional experience includes a stint at the NH Division of Motor Vehicles, where he oversaw a large-scale project that enabled municipal clerks to renew state auto registrations while simultaneously processing property tax payments. He is confident that skepticism and anxiety about the ability of the court and the legal community to transition to an all-digital world will dissipate over time.
“Change does not come easily to lawyers or IT people, or anyone in business,” he said. “Change is difficult, because it takes time to adjust – there is some fear of it no matter who you are. I would say: ‘Be patient.’”