Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Eight Rules of E-Filing: Rule #3

Rule Number 3: Design Backwards 

Information presentation should be designed around the work tasks that a judge or clerk performs.  Malcolm Gladwell in his article, “The Social Life of Paper” explains:

“It is only if paper's usefulness is in the information written directly on it that it must be stored. If its usefulness lies in the promotion of ongoing creative thinking, then, once that thinking is finished, the paper becomes superfluous. The solution to our paper problem, they write, is not to use less paper but to keep less paper. Why bother filing at all? Everything we know about the workplace suggests that few if any knowledge workers ever refer to documents again once they have filed them away, which should come as no surprise, since paper is a lousy way to archive information. It's too hard to search and it takes up too much space. Besides, we all have the best filing system ever invented, right there on our desks -- the personal computer.”

Therefore, it makes eminent sense to take the next step – to present and even format the documents to take advantage of the electronic environment.  In other words, I am advocating designing e-filing systems from the inside out, or backwards from the judge’s information presentation needs back to the filers.  But unfortunately our current approach is to maintain court documents in their two-dimensional/standard paper sized paradigm.  This can and should change.

How you might ask?  A key idea behind XML technology was to separate information presentation capabilities from the data.  This concept is used in guided interfaces like Access2Justice Author that step a filer through a series of questions in one format to create the final legal form presentation.  If the court receives the e-filed document with the XML then that obviously helps to extract the form data for case management system entry; but also opens the possibilities to easily sort and combine information to facilitate decisions by judges and staff.

An excellent presentation on effective information presentation taking advantage of their electronic environment was made by Presiding Judge Connie Steinheimer of the Nevada State District Court at the E-Courts 2010 conference.  The example shown below is of an electronic file that she used on the bench during a hearing.

As one can see below, this use of the PDF “binder” capability allows the documents to be grouped and ordered as desired in order to quickly navigate to the document in question or, automatically sort the documents needed in the hearing to the top of the order.  This approach replaces the “yellow sticky note” approach to quick document access that is practiced today in courtrooms all over the country.  Judge Steinheimer remarked during her presentation that she feels she can adjudicate matters twice as fast using the electronic file compared to manual.  And in fact she had substituted for an absent judge and was frustrated by not being able to quickly navigate the paper file in comparison.

Further, other courts have used staff (or automated tools from the legal research vendors) to build case file abstracts or outlines with hyperlinks that allow a judge to have “click” access to the points of evidence or law.

But the documents themselves can be dynamic containing all information but displaying only what is needed at the time of the filing or hearing.  I found several examples of dynamically expanding lists and paragraphs online as examples of what is possible particularly for courts that use standard forms.  Many of these standard forms can be completed online and saved and e-filed so that the court can control the information and the presentation for efficiency.

See and click examples at:




And last, electronic document systems allow judges and others to download personal work copies to portable devices such as Pad or Tablet computers.  Colorado State Court Judges in the USA have personal work copies of their entire caseload on their Tablet PC’s.  This in turn allows them to annotate and organize the documents in any manner they wish.  And so they carry the documents for their entire caseload under their arm.