To encourage use of its soon-to-launch electronic case filing system, Milwaukee County is considering getting into the process serving business.
The county’s new e-file system for civil, family and small claims launches Monday.
Although the system is designed to be a faster way to file and view documents online, a $5-per-case convenience charge assessed by Wisconsin Consolidated Court Automation Programs has generally been a deterrent to e-filing in state, said Milwaukee County Clerk of Courts John Barrett.
Since the Wisconsin Supreme Court authorized voluntary circuit court e-filing in 2008, only about 2,500 cases have been electronically filed in the 16 counties that offer the option, according to Tom Sheehan, Wisconsin court information officer.
“Some people think that $5 cost is high,” Barrett said, “If that is a deterrent, creating savings some place else might be an incentive.”
To attract users to its system, Milwaukee County is looking at offering e-file users the ability to have the county serve related documents via mail, instead of paying an independent courier.
Wisconsin statute allows county courts to assess a $2 charge on defendants for mail service of summons in small claims civil actions. Barrett said Milwaukee doesn’t currently take advantage of the law because of a lack of court staff to handle the expected volume.
But offering that option, limited to e-filed cases, would be less burdensome for court staff, he said, while encouraging greater use of e-file.
“My guess is attorneys spend far more on process servers,” Barrett said. “So if an individual could get service accomplished by paying $2 and having the clerk mail it, I think attorneys would opt into something like that.”
Milwaukee solo family lawyer Diane Diel, who typically spends $25-$50 when she needs to serve a divorce summons, said the county’s $2 cost to serve via mail would be an attractive incentive. Even though it would require electronic filing of the case in order to take advantage of the service, she said, the $5 e-file fee is better than the $10-$12 she now spends to have a complaint filed by bike messengers, often twice a week.
“It seems like a small price to pay,” she said. “I think the convenience would overcome reluctance to pay the cost of e-filing.”
But if the county takes over some process serving services, it would cut into the business of servers such as Jay Myhre, of Myhre Process Service, Milwaukee.
Myhre’s business relies on delivery of civil, small claims and family summons, he said.
“I think that would be a huge concern,” he said, “because as an attorney, why wouldn’t you do the whole process for $7 instead of close to $40.”
Diel said there will still be a place for servers such as Myhre, however, because there is a comfort that comes with having certain sensitive documents, such as petition orders to show cause in a divorce, hand-delivered rather than sent in the mail.
Myhre questioned the extent to which the clerk’s office, beyond an initial mailing, would ensure summons are served on the parties. If an initial attempt to serve fails, Myhre said he typically mines DMV records, credit bureaus and voter registration to try and find the party to show due diligence before a summons is published.
“It can be pretty extensive, depending on what the client wants to pay,” he said. “But the clerk can’t just say we sent it to this address and the person moved. A judge won’t accept that as service.”
For the $2 fee, the clerk’s office would be required to mail service of summons. But if the summons came back undeliverable, according to statute, it would be placed on file and no additional attempts would be made by the court to reach the individual.
“It would be up to the party to take the next subsequent action,” Barrett said. “That could include possible publication or personal service attempts.”
Additionally, he said, private process servers would still be needed in cases where court service of summons isn’t available, such as for evictions.
Before moving forward with the process service incentive, Barrett said, a local court rule will be needed to address concerns, along with authorization from CCAP.
“We want to know legally, if we can restrict this to just e-filings to charge the $2,” Barrett said. “So we have to make sure this all passes constitutional muster before we can do it.”