The state Supreme Court gave preliminary approval Tuesday to a policy change that would start the state on the road toward requiring lawyers to file court documents electronically.
If eventually given final approval, the plan would intially require e-filing of three types of cases: civil, small-claims, and paternity and other sorts of family-law cases. Parties would pay $20 for each case they file.
The change would be introduced in two counties and then, by July 1, expanded into the 40 counties that already offer voluntary e-filing. E-filing requirements for those specific case types would bee added for the remaining 30 counties by the end of 2017.
E-filing for case types other than civil, small-claims and family-law cases would eventually be imposed, as well, but not until the end of 2019, according to the court’s schedule.
A previous e-filing proposal came to a halt last year when Gov. Scott Walker and lawmakers rejected a Supreme Court request for $2.2 million to help pay for state trial courts’ transition to the use of an electronic system. In response, the high court asked trial-court judges last March to find another way to pay for the system.
Milwaukee County Circuit Court Judge Richard Sankovitz said the justices should approve the e-filing mandate as soon as possible because staff members at the state’s Consolidated Court Automation Program now have time to put the plan into effect. He noted that CCAP recently finished two unrelated projects.
“If we put this off for a year so we can study another option, we’re going to lose the opportunity,” Sankovitz said.
Aside from judges, support for mandatory e-filing came Tuesday from various circuit court clerks and lawyers. Among the proponents was Katherine Koespell, an attorney who practices law at a six-person firm in Beaver Dam and Mayville. She said that she and any lawyer who likewise regularly works in more than one county would welcome the change.
She said the $20 fees would be offset by time saved from no longer having to file summons and complaint on paper. She estimated e-filing would save her at least an hour of work and said the resulting savings would be passed on to her clients.
Not everyone who spoke Tuesday, though, was in favor of mandatory e-filing.
Robert Dreps, an attorney representing newspapers around the state, warned the justices that the proposal could raise constitutional and common-law questions if it resulted in circuit-court documents being no longer immediately available to the public.
“Efficiency need not come at the expense of timely access,” he said.
Dreps recommended that the courts provide computers that reporters could use to look at new documents as soon as they were filed. Courts in Nevada and Georgia took such a step, he said, after mandatory e-filing came about in their states.
Supporters maintain that moving to an entirely paperless system would not affect the public’s ability to access court documents. E-filing would in fact make the documents available sooner, said Lynn Hron, Dodge County clerk of court.
“When the electronic record is accepted and filed, it is available on the public-access kiosks,” she said. “(Reporters) don’t have to bother staff.”
Hron said that it takes about five minutes to accept and process a document.
Also, Justices Shirley Abrahamson and Ann Walsh Bradley said they were concerned that the $20 fee would make the courts less accessible to certain groups of people, especially since the fees might often be paid by the losing parties in court actions.
The justices noted that most small-claims lawsuits in Milwaukee Count are filed by utility companies, landlords and bill collectors.
“I’m just concerned about raising the cost on the people who are subject of the largest category of (small-claims lawsuits),” said Bradley. “A lot of times those are the people who can’t pay those bills, and they will be taxed literally and figuratively by having to pay an additional $20 fee.”Follow @erikastrebel