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History of Court Processes, Programs, and Initiatives

Modernize the Administration of Justice & Court Facilities


Technology

To support their day-to-day operations, Florida’s courts rely increasingly on information technology.  In the past, court technology was relegated to discrete IT units or departments.  But now, it permeates all aspects of the judicial branch and affects everyone who works in the courts system. It also touches, and creates expectations in, everyone who relies on the courts: attorneys, justice partners, jurors, the media, court users, and the public.  In most every area of court business, IT plays an elemental role these days—in data management, case management, document management and imaging, workflow management, digital court reporting, remote court interpreting, electronic filing, and electronic access to court-based information, for instance.  IT is also being harnessed to facilitate access to civil justice: for example, the branch, in collaboration with The Florida Bar and the Florida Court Clerks and Comptrollers, has been developing web-based, interactive, guided “interviews” that shepherd self-represented litigants through the process of electronically creating certain documents that are ready for filing. 

To advise it on issues connected with the use of technology in the branch, the supreme court created the Court Technology Users Committee in 1995.  As the scope of the committee necessarily broadened, the court broadened its responsibilities: under the direction of the court, the Florida Courts Technology Commission (established in Rule 2.236 as a standing commission in 2010) is responsible for overseeing, managing, and directing the development and use of technology within the branch; it also coordinates and reviews recommendations concerning court policy matters that involve the use of technology and establishes the technology policies and standards by which all court committees and work groups must abide. 

The judicial branch continues to make significant strides toward its goal of developing a comprehensive electronic courts structure.  This objective includes the implementation of a statewide electronic filing solution (e-filing) for the trial and appellate courts; the integration of e-filing with other automated court processes; and electronic access to the courts.  It also includes the branch’s development of an Integrated Trial Court Adjudicatory System: a standardized, statewide, integrated data management solution for capturing and reporting case and court activity information for use both at the circuit and statewide levels.  In addition, to review, prioritize, develop, and implement the manifold, complex technology solutions that support efficient, effective, and timely access to justice, the branch instituted IT governance structures at all levels of court.  Below is a description of some of the branch’s most promising technology initiatives. 

E-Filing

E-filing refers to the electronic submission of court documents from lawyers and litigants to the clerks of court and from the lower tribunals to the appellate courts.  E-filing reduces costs for the courts, clerks, and court users (e.g., the cost of printing, copying, mailing—and the expenses associated with the time it takes to perform these tasks); improves case processing and case management; and enhances users’ access to the courts without significantly increasing their costs to use the courts.

The judicial branch began working to automate the process for filing court documents in 1979, when the supreme court adopted its first rules governing e-filing (back then, e-filing meant filing by fax).  In 2008, the legislature supported these efforts by mandating a transition to the electronic filing of court records and requesting that the supreme court set e-filing standards; the Florida Courts Technology Commission was directed to set the standards, and the court adopted them in 2009.  (Take this link to the Standards for Electronic Access to the Courts.)  Not long after, the Florida Court Clerks and Comptrollers reported that it had created an electronic portal—a statewide website for the secure electronic transmission of court records to and from the Florida Courts—that the branch could use.  Together, the supreme court and clerks established the Florida Courts E-Filing Authority: the public entity that owns the portal, makes its business decisions, and is responsible for designing, developing, implementing, operating, upgrading, supporting, and maintaining the portal in keeping with the branch’s e-filing standards.

After the branch and clerks of court addressed the necessary technical matters for e-filing documents to the trial courts (e.g., creating data envelopes for each of the 10 trial court divisions, developing and receiving approval for each county’s e-filing plans, and building an interface between each circuit court and the portal), the portal went live: files began coming through the portal in early January 2011. 

All 67 counties accept filings through the portal—as do the supreme court and the Second DCA.  And the number of registered users continues to rise steadily.  By February 2016, for instance, the portal had 108,000 registered users—among them, attorneys (who are required to file through the portal), judges, and self-represented litigants.  In addition, mediators, process servers, court reporters, mental health professionals, law enforcement officials, various state and local agencies, insurance agencies, creditors, and the media can now file court documents through the portal.  Document types are being developed for additional filer roles.

As expected, portal traffic continues to get heavier, with documents being filed every hour of every day.  On an average weekday, for instance, the portal conveys more than 54,000 electronic filings—and it conveys, on average, 1.1 million submissions per month.  (This link goes to the Florida Courts E-Filing Portal.)

Appellate Courts Technology Solutions

E-filing is just one of many automated court processes that the judicial branch is implementing as it migrates to a comprehensive electronic courts structure.  Keeping its sight on the bigger picture while laying the groundwork for appellate e-filing, the judicial branch has been working to develop software applications that will enable the seamless integration of e-filing with other judicial processes—such as case management, document management, and workflow management. Since June 2010, the appellate courts have been participating in two projects designed to facilitate this migration: the electronic Florida Appellate Courts Technology Solution (eFACTS) and iDCA/eDCA.

eFACTS, developed by OSCA’s Information Systems Services Unit, was piloted in the supreme court (which has been using eFACTS since June 2012) and the Second DCA (which began using eFACTS in August 2013).  eFACTS utilizes the Microsoft web application platform and includes electronic document management and workflows: eFACTS captures electronic as well as scanned documents, storing them in a secure environment; facilitates the logical organization of the documents and automatically inputs the data for case management purposes; and enables users to locate, retrieve, and work on the documents they need, when they need them.  Other features include electronic judicial voting, tracking of administrative matters, administrative and correspondence tracking, billing related to court filings, and tasking.  Users can use their mobile devices to vote remotely, review cases, and access documents easily and securely at their convenience.

In addition, eFACTS accommodates electronic filing through the portal.  Attorneys have been required to e-file documents through the portal to the supreme court since April 1, 2013, and to the Second DCA since October 1, 2013.  And since June 30, 2014, both courts have been accepting transmittals from the lower tribunals through the portal.

The other appellate courts technology system, called iDCA/eDCA, was originally developed by the First DCA for workers compensation cases.  It is closely connected to the court’s existing case management system and includes e-filing, document management, and tasking features designed for the appellate process.  It involves three closely linked sites: Internal DCA (iDCA), an internal component for document management for use by judges and law clerks; External DCA (eDCA), a portal for the transmittal of all filings with the court (this site also includes access to public digitized documents for those listed as the attorney or party of record as well as e-service of court orders, opinions, etc.); and the Case Review system.  iDCA/eDCA is successfully deployed at the First, Third, Fourth, and Fifth DCAs.

eFACTS is currently running parallel with iDCA/eDCA at these district courts, and judges and court staff have been exploring the eFACTS features.  Meanwhile, eFACTS continues to be modified to accommodate the needs and preferences of these users and to provide some of the valued features of iDCA/eDCA.  For example, the remaining functionality of the old case management system was recently moved into eFACTS, and the DCAs and supreme court have been exploring it, comparing it to the old system; when each court feels the time is right, the old case management system interface will be removed.  In this manner, the district courts will gradually transition to eFACTS—a move that will also enable them to accept filings through the statewide e-filing portal.

Integrated Trial Court Adjudicatory System    

The Commission on Trial Court Performance and Accountability, in keeping with its charge to propose policies and procedures on matters related to the efficient and effective function of Florida’s trial courts, has been focusing on the development of technology-based strategies for moving cases more smoothly and dexterously through the trial court process.  The commission reached a significant milestone in December 2012, when it submitted The Trial Court Integrated Management Solution (TIMS) report to the supreme court.  Ambitious in scope and the product of a concerted, two-year collaboration with the Court Statistics and Workload Committee and with the Florida Courts Technology Commission, this report offered a framework for a standardized, statewide, integrated data management solution for capturing and reporting case and court activity information for use both at the circuit and statewide levels—in short, it defined the kind of data the courts need to collect about the activity of the courts and the kind of system the branch needs to build in order to collect these data.  (Take this link to the TIMS report.) 

Because branch leaders realized they could not tackle such a colossal project all at once, they advocated for working on a series of small, self-contained projects that could eventually be “snapped together” to form what is now called the Integrated Trial Court Adjudicatory System (ITCAS).  The branch’s “enterprise view” entails the building of the various components slowly and deliberately with that global perspective ever in mind.  Over the last few years, the focus has been on two key elements of this system.

First is the Court Application Processing System (CAPS).  A critical corollary to e-filing court documents is the implementation of a system that enables judges and court staff to view and respond to those documents electronically and to enhance the management of cases.  CAPS is designed to meet these needs.  CAPs, which must adhere to standards developed by the Florida Courts Technology Commission, is a computer application system designed for in-court and in-chambers use by trial court judges and court staff, allowing them to work electronically on cases from any location and across many devices and data sources.  Consisting of workstations and software, this interactive case management application provides judges with rapid and reliable access to case information; it provides access to and use of case files and other data in the course of managing cases, scheduling and conducting hearings, adjudicating disputes, and recording and reporting judicial activity; and it allows judges to prepare, electronically sign, file, and serve orders.  A vital component to the adjudicatory function of Florida’s trial court judges, this web-based processing system has the potential to serve as the framework for a fully automated trial court case management system. 

The initial hardware and software for CAPS was purchased with National Mortgage Settlement funding that lawmakers appropriated to the state courts system in fiscal years 2013 – 14 and 2014 – 15 to address the glut of backlogged foreclosure cases.  The branch is currently seeking to make this technology available in all civil divisions and the criminal division.

The second element of the Integrated Trial Court Adjudicatory System is called the Judicial Data Management Services Project (JDMS).  This project involves a state-level data management strategy that will pull court activity data from multiple sources and integrate them into a coherent whole.  Ultimately, the data it provides will enable courts to measure adjudicatory outcomes and evaluate their efficiency; lead to increased operational efficiency through the adroit use of shared resources; and support supreme court efforts to establish organizational priorities through legislative resource and budgetary requests.  The judicial branch has high aspirations for the JDMS—indeed, the courts system’s collection and management of foreclosure data for the Foreclosure Initiative was a “proof of concept” for the project—and during the 2015 legislative session, lawmakers showed their support, appropriating funding for operational support for staff augmentation, software development, licensing, hardware, and equipment for the development of the JDMS Project.

Remote Interpreting Systems

Another major technology initiative in which the Commission on Trial Court Performance and Accountability has been involved is the use of remote interpreting systems to contain the costs of interpreting resources while maintaining accuracy.  Florida continues to experience significant growth in its non-English speaking population—a trend also reflected in the courts—and the judicial branch has been taking steps to improve its ability to handle cases and other matters involving parties or witnesses who have limited English proficiency.  These efforts include expanding the use of technology to improve efficiencies without sacrificing quality.

As early as 2007, some of Florida’s trial courts began using audio and video technology to provide interpreting services remotely within their circuits; this came to be referred to as the “circuit model.”  Over the last few years, the branch began to develop what it is calling a “regional model”—a more advanced remote interpreting solution that facilitates sharing interpreting resources among different circuits.  The regional model, as envisioned, includes a state-level call manager (to manage the shared services) and has the potential to provide judges with scheduled and on-demand access to qualified staff and/or contractual interpreters.  Expected benefits of the regional model include the elimination of travel, improved efficiency in case processing, improved effectiveness in the delivery of interpreting services, and increased opportunity to share interpreter resources among circuits and with other states.

In 2010, several circuits began preliminary explorations of a regional model pilot.  Then in fiscal year 2013 – 14, the branch received funding to expand the piloting efforts of the regional model: the Third, Seventh, Ninth, Fourteenth, Fifteenth, and Sixteenth Circuits began sharing remote interpreting resources, and OSCA housed the call manager.  A joint workgroup including members from the commission, the Due Process Technology Workgroup, and the Court Interpreter Certification Board was established to make recommendations on the business processes associated with sharing remote interpreting resources via the assisted use of technology; its report is currently under review by the supreme court. 

Florida Trial Courts Technology Strategic Plan

The judicial branch has made great strides in developing and implementing technology solutions to support efficient and effective access to justice.  But it has also faced some significant challenges, especially in its efforts to respond to trial court technology needs: because funding for trial court “communications services” (as referenced in the Florida constitution) falls under the jurisdiction of each of the 67 boards of county commissioners, technology resources differ from one county to another, resulting in disparities in the level of information and the services that the trial courts are able to provide.  Another challenge the branch faces is the lack of state-level automation, which results in inconsistent communication between local automation systems and in a fractured data collection environment generally.

To address these concerns, in 2013, the supreme court directed the Trial Court Budget Commission to explore potential revenue sources to support the trial courts’ future technology needs.  The commission then established the Trial Court Technology Funding Strategies Workgroup to develop recommendations regarding the resources necessary to adequately fund the acquisition, support, maintenance, and refresh of technologies required to undergird the business needs of the trial courts—with the goal of developing the technology infrastructure needed to help ensure equal justice to Floridians in all 20 circuits.

To propose a funding structure for future trial court technology needs, the workgroup determined that the branch would first need to develop a comprehensive technology plan to address those needs, estimate what those technologies might cost, and define a mechanism for funding them.  With National Center for State Courts support, and with the input of the 20 trial court administrators and the 20 trial court technology officers, the workgroup developed a strategic plan that identifies the critical business capabilities and the corresponding technical capabilities that the trial courts must have in order to function effectively.  The plan also defines three main projects.  The first is the development of an infrastructure to effectively manage court business processes (the plan recommends the expansion of the Court Application Processing System, which provides judges and staff with the electronic case file information they need to perform their adjudicatory function).  The second project is the furnishing of tools to perform more accurate and reliable digital court reporting and remote court interpreting (e.g., continued integration of digital equipment and funds devoted to refreshing previously purchased equipment).  And the third is the provision of a minimum level of technology support services across the state (e.g., for dedicated IT support staff, for bandwidth, for training and education).  (Take this link to read the strategic plan.)

To develop, implement, and sustain these projects, the workgroup also calculated the courts system’s funding needs over the next few years, emphasizing that, in addition to county funding, the courts system would need adequate and reliable state funding.  It then developed, for the legislature’s consideration, a comprehensive funding structure to support, maintain, and refresh the necessary technology elements.  The biggest request was for fiscal year 2015 – 16, for which $25.6 million in non-recurring funds was sought.  Although lawmakers have not yet appropriated funding for this project, they have expressed interest in it and are likely to re-consider it in upcoming legislative sessions.

Electronic Access to the Courts

While the term e-filing literally refers to the electronic transmission of court documents to the Florida courts, it actually signifies the more global goal of electronic access to the courts—that is, the use of information technologies to enhance the accessibility of the courts.  Electronic access includes the many automated processes that make the courts more open and reachable by all users—judges, court personnel, and clerks of court; attorneys, self-represented litigants, and other parties; justice system partners and other user groups; the media; and the public.  While advancing toward the full implementation of statewide e-filing, the judicial branch has kept its sight on the more universal goal of electronic access to the courts.

One of its most persevering goals has been to establish a mechanism for providing remote access to court records while protecting people’s privacy rights.  Since 2003, with the creation of the supreme court’s Committee on Privacy and Court Records, the branch has been directing considerable efforts toward developing the infrastructure and policies needed to protect and curtail confidential and sensitive information in court records while establishing the means for providing public access to non-confidential records.  Among these efforts was the adoption, in 2007, of a limited moratorium on access to electronic court records to address concerns about sensitive and confidential information contained therein.  (To read the 2007 Interim Policy on Electronic Release of Court Records, follow this link.)

In addition, the court has adopted rules and amendments to minimize the presence of sensitive and confidential information in court records, to require filers to identify and safeguard confidential information in their pleadings, and to require the automatic redaction of a standard list of 22 statutory public records exemptions by the clerks of court.

In May 2014, the supreme court took the next logical step toward responsible public access to electronic court records.  At the recommendation of the Florida Courts Technology Commission, it adopted the Standards for Access to Electronic Court Records and the Access Security Matrix—documents that, together, provide a carefully-structured apparatus to facilitate appropriate, differentiated levels of access to court records to judges, to court and clerks office personnel, and to members of the general public and user groups with specialized credentials.  (The standards and matrix are based on a model developed by the Manatee County Clerk of Court for a pilot program that operated under supreme court oversight from 2007 – 2011.)  Both are living documents that continue to be modified as statutes, rules, and administrative orders are revised or issued.  (Follow this link to the administrative order adopting the standards and the security matrix.) 

To ensure that sufficient security measures are in place, clerks of court who seek to make court records electronically accessible must file an application with the court.  The Florida Courts Technology Commission is responsible for reviewing and approving each application.  Once a clerk receives approval, he or she must participate in a 90-day pilot program that monitors and coordinates all established clerk initiatives relating to online access to electronic court records.  After participating in the pilot, the clerk can submit a letter to the Florida Courts Technology Commission seeking approval to go into a full production system.


Emergency Preparedness in Florida’s Courts

For court access to be a reality, the courthouse doors must be open, and the courts must be in working order.  When courts have to close because of an emergency, whether the source is human or a natural cataclysm, then, in effect, court access is denied and justice is delayed.

The September 11 tragedy was the spur that propelled the development of branch-wide policies and procedures for anticipating and managing emergencies that can disrupt court operations.  Within a few months of the terrorist offensives, then Chief Justice Charles Wells established the Work Group on Emergency Preparedness and directed it to “develop a plan for the State Courts System to better respond to emergency situations.”  The workgroup was guided by two policy goals: protect the health and safety of everyone inside the courts and keep the courts open to ensure justice for the people.

Since then, each Florida court has identified its mission-essential functions; each has a preparedness plan that includes emergency and administrative procedures as well as a continuity of operations plan; and each has designated an emergency coordinating officer, a court emergency management team (which is responsible for maintaining court operations in a disaster situation), and a public information officer (who helps to coordinate emergency response activities and provides information to, and answers questions from, the media and the public).  At the same time, the branch founded the United Supreme Court/Branch Court Emergency Management Group (CEMG) to recommend policy for, prepare for, and respond to emergencies both in the supreme court building and in state courts across Florida.  In addition, to expedite responses to threats and emergencies as well as to foster the coordination of resources, the branch established lines of communication with executive branch agencies and with local and statewide emergency management and first responder agencies.  The emergency preparedness measures that Florida’s court system has instituted since 9/11 have been nationally recognized as a model of teamwork and intergovernmental collaboration.

Emergency management includes being prepared both for nature-made crises (tropical storms, hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, pandemics, etc.) and for human-made calamities (oil spills, biohazards, extended information systems outages, military or terrorist attack-related incidents, and the like).  Generally, the emergencies that tend to strike Florida are weather-connected (Florida is the most hurricane-prone state in the nation, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; historically, 40 percent of the hurricanes that have pummeled the US hit the Sunshine State).  At times, courts have to close briefly in response to weather events like heavy rains that lead to rising waters and flooding.  Events like power outages, water main ruptures, malfunctioning A/C units, and server failures may also necessitate temporary closures.

After deftly addressing any kind of courthouse threat, court emergency management team members treat the incident as an opportunity to review their continuity of operations plan and make any necessary adjustments to ensure that their court is as prepared as possible to respond to crises, recover from them, and mitigate against their impacts.  The CEMG regularly encourages each court to review its plan, conduct table-top exercises that test its plan, and engage in drills (fire, emergency evacuation, and shelter in place drills) a few times each year.

Because preparing for threats and emergencies is an ongoing requirement, the branch continues to develop strategies to ensure the safety of the public, judicial officers, and court personnel. Recent endeavors include the supreme court’s September 2015 creation of the Task Force on Appellate Court Safety and Security, directed to develop proposed standards and best practices relating to the safety and security of the supreme court and the DCAs. The increasing incidences of mass violence also prompted the supreme court to establish the Trial Courthouse Security Workgroup in 2016; under the auspices of the Judicial Management Council, this workgroup is focusing on security standards of operation and best practices.