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Counties finding e-filing success as it meanders across the state

By: JESSICA STEPHEN//December 19, 2016//

Counties finding e-filing success as it meanders across the state

By: JESSICA STEPHEN//December 19, 2016//

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More than a dozen counties will adopt electronic-filing requirements in the next few months as the push toward mandatory e-filing continues in Wisconsin.

The movement is the culmination of nearly 10 years of work and two failed attempts to get the state Supreme Court to sign off on a statewide mandatory e-filing system.

The delay has partly been the result of budget troubles. The courts have also required a bit of convincing.

After all, Ozaukee County Court Clerk Mary Lou Mueller said, “You’re changing a culture that has long been tied to paper.”

But with 23 counties already requiring lawyers to e-file documents in civil, family, paternity and small cases and most counties at least allowing lawyers to use e-filing if they want, the days of paper seem poised to be little more than a memory.

“We’re completely electronic. The only paper we deal with is from pro se litigants,” said Mueller, who was working in the clerk’s office when Ozaukee County voluntarily began scanning small claims, civil and family cases in 2008.

“That was what we believed to be the beginning of e-filing,” Mueller said. “We could see back then the efficiencies and how the application could provide greater access to the courts for all parties.”

Sizing up the past eight years, Mueller said, “I can’t imagine a time we would ever want to move back to paper.”

And, yet, the path to the adoption of an electronic system seemed uncertain at best a mere few years ago.

Even after the first voluntary e-filing program was offered in 2006 and quickly proved advantageous, there appeared to be little support for a state Supreme Court mandate, said Jean Bousquet, chief information officer for the Wisconsin Court System.

A LOOK AHEAD

Twenty-three counties already require lawyers to e-file documents in civil, family, paternity and small cases. By March 1, 2017, e-filing will become mandatory in criminal cases in those same places. By the end of 2017, every county in Wisconsin will have e-filing requirements for civil, small-claims, family, and paternity cases. The goal is to have all case types filed electronically in every county in the state by Dec. 31, 2019.

HOW IT WORKS

All you need to start e-filing is an Internet connection, an email account, a scanner that can send documents in PDF format and software that can do PDF conversions, such as Microsoft Word 2007 or a newer product. After that it’s just a matter of practice. This can start with training from the Wisconsin Court System, whose e-filing team typically trains 100 people or more in less than a week before a county begins to allow voluntary electronic filing.

LEARN MORE

Find more information about mandatory e-filing in Wisconsin at www.wicourts.gov/efile or by calling 1-800-462-8843. Updates are also available via email or on Twitter. Source: Wisconsin Court System

“We tried twice to get our mandatory e-filing rule passed, but we needed a budget to do this and our budget efforts failed two biennial budgets in a row,” Bousquet said.

The court’s reluctance was disappointing. But, with it expected that nearly $2 million would need to be spent on training and related preparations, it also wasn’t surprising, said Jefferson County Judge Randy Koschnick. Koschnick, who will become director of state courts in August, was part of a committee of chief judges who helped present the case for mandatory e-filing to the state Supreme Court.

When the committee suggested that e-filers pay a fee of $20 for every case, state justices re-examined the mandated proposal and passed state Supreme Court Rule 801.18. Effective since July 1, the rule has cleared the way for statewide adoption by Dec. 31, 2019.

The court’s action was a milestone for Koschnick, who had volunteered Jefferson County as a testing ground for mandatory e-filing. The mandate, as outlined under the new state Supreme Court rule, was also tried in Dodge County, starting in June, and was officially extended to Ozaukee and Jefferson counties in July.

“I volunteered to be one of the early counties so I could be involved with working out glitches,” said Koschnick, who, along with his fellow judges in the Jefferson County Circuit Court, has been “paperless” since January.

Eliminating glitches was an early priority. Katherine Koepsell, a lawyer who practices in Dodge County, said the state’s e-filing team has proved not only accessible but also responsive. A great deal has been accomplished, she said, through the use of Twitter updates, mass emails and phone support.

“We were kind of a guinea pig for the county,” said Koepsell, whose firm began e-filing in Dodge County in 2012. “And it’s a new technology, so with any new technology there is a learning period where we all have to be flexible. But, literally, everything I have asked, everything I’ve said, ‘This isn’t workable’ or ‘This could be changed,’ they’ve put it in the next update.”

Koepsell said the act of e-filing itself has proved simple enough that it’s been worth whatever extra effort has been needed to learn it.

“It’s really easy; if you can go shopping on Amazon, you can e-file,” she said.

It also saves time.

With offices in Mayville and Beaver Dam in Dodge County, Koepsell found that mailing documents for her firm’s estate planning, probate and criminal cases would often involve a four- to five-day turnaround.

There was always the option of driving, of course. But the trek to and from the courthouse, particularly on a day without hearings, ate up precious time.

E-filing has meant lawyers can devote more of their day to the actual practice of law.

“There’s no delay; you’re always up on what is going on in your case,” she said.

Courthouses are seeing benefits, too.

Courts in Jefferson, Ozaukee, Washington and Waukesha counties, all part of the Third Judicial Administrative District, have reported time, space or money savings — sometimes all three — since going digital, said Koschnick, the district’s chief judge.

In fact, e-filing has been so successful in the district that Jefferson, Ozaukee and Waukesha counties have now become among the 17 counties that allow voluntary e-filing in criminal cases. Ozaukee County, where e-filing is already mandatory for civil, family and small-claims cases but not for traffic cases and civil forfeitures, will make it mandatory for criminal cases in March.

The effects have been so far reaching that Ozaukee County has been able to take space in the clerk’s office once occupied by a rolling file cabinet and turn it into three cubicles. The file room has similarly been converted into a self-help center.

“Which will serve the public far better,” Mueller said.

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