Friday, June 10, 2011

Florida Supreme Court considers rule requiring lawyers to exchange pleadings via email

The Florida Supreme Court heard arguments on Wednesday regarding a Florida Bar proposal that would require attorneys to exchange pleadings via email rather than snail mail.  A lawyer representing the Public Defenders Office asked the court to exempt criminal matters from the proposed rule while another attorney expressed concern that the new rule would hurt indigent parties. The Justices did not indicate when, or how, they will rule.

From the Miami Herald:

The state Supreme Court should exempt criminal cases from a proposed rule that would require attorneys to exchange most pleadings with each other by email instead of on paper until the court system itself goes digital, a lawyer for Florida's public defenders told justices Wednesday.

The Florida Bar's proposed rule is being billed as the first significant change in the way law is practiced in the state in more than a century and a step toward electronic filing of lawsuits, indictments and other documents with court clerks.

"We're wildly looking forward to the day when that happens," Assistant Public Defender John E. Morrison of Miami told the justices. "What we oppose is the tail wagging the dog."

Morrison, who argued on behalf of the Florida Public Defender Association, said it would make more financial sense to create an e-filing system - such as the one already used by federal courts - before requiring lawyer-to-lawyer exchanges of documents by email.

"That is well worth the investment," Morrison said. "What is not worth the investment is creating that system once for the service (of pleadings) and then having to recreate it when we get e-filing."

Justice Barbara Pariente asked about the possibility of setting up an e-filing pilot program for criminal cases in up to three of Florida's 20 judicial circuits.

Morrison said that would be acceptable but he wasn't sure any circuit yet has a computer system capable of doing it, noting that Miami-Dade County's online court docket uses 1983 technology.

"Young kids that come into our office laugh at it," Morrison said. "They have never seen something so archaic."

He said some small public defender offices don't even have email systems. The problem with email is the sheer volume of criminal cases because public defenders handle about 800,000 each year and state attorneys probably more than a million, Morrison said.

Pariente said there should be some way, though, to get it worked out.

"I am serious about this," she said. "There is an issue of what comes first, and maybe we try to get some of these circuits and get this solved, right? I hear you."

Morrison said either way the high court goes, it's going to require newer and bigger computer systems. But he added, "We would like to invest taxpayer dollars only once."

Ten different bar rules committees unanimously endorsed the proposal for exchanging pleadings electronically instead of on paper delivered by the U.S. Postal Service.

In papers filed with the high court, they argued "the savings in terms of paper, ink, toner, postage, envelopes and labor is incalculable" and that "the destruction of trees is a secondary benefit that is of no small moment."

You can read more from the Miami Herald here and additional coverage from Broward Sun Sentinel here.


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