Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The Need for Court E-Forms Identification (Meta-Data) Standards - Part 1

There is a fundamental problem with the way that electronic court forms have been implemented.  This series discusses some ideas to address the current shortcomings.


Warning: Technical ideas ahead – These are some initial thoughts on the subject below and therefore will greatly benefit from your input in the future.

In recent weeks I've been working on some case management and E-filing systems requirements and discovered a fundamental problem in how courts design and implement electronic forms (E-forms).  As mentioned before, documents and in this instance, forms are the lifeblood of the judicial system.  Courts use forms to organize the presentation of information for clarity and efficiency.  But electronic forms, just like E-filing and computerized case management systems can do much more than their tree-pulp predecessors.

The problem is simply the identification of courts E-forms.  In a physical environment it is easy to recognize the form from its title or presentation format.  But in the electronic world, the problems are threefold.  First, there is a need for CMS and E-filing systems to be able to easily recognize an E-form so that it can be routed (via work flow) to the proper department or person in the court.  Second, and more important, the submitted forms ARE in many instances the contents of the case file and should therefore be viewed both technically and operationally as part of the CMS database.  And third, because documents and forms are used by non-court organizations and need to provide support for some of their needs.

Document Meta-Data

I believe that the solution is to apply consistent meta-data to the E-forms.  But first, meta what?  The Wikipedia article on the subject elegantly describes it as "data about the containers of data...(and b)y describing the contents and context of data files, the quality of the original data/files is greatly increased.” The containers in this instance are the court forms.

The good news is the ability to apply meta-data in many of the most popular document programs:

First, in Microsoft Word one can use the “Properties” feature to identify the nature of the document as well as special notes or codes.  The form looks like this (click on the picture below for a larger image):

Second, the open source LibreOffice has “Custom Properties” for meta-data that looks like this (click on picture below for larger image):

The beauty of both Microsoft Word (2007 and 2010) and LibreOffice is that they both result in native XML file formats.  For example, in LibraOffice the results from the Properties of Custom Properties Test shown above (within the meta.xml file) is as follows:

<meta:user-defined meta:name="Court Location">Belgrade </meta:user-defined>
<meta:user-defined meta:name="Department">Misdemeanor Court</meta:user-defined>
<meta:user-defined meta:name="Form Number">SCA-C100.02</meta:user-defined>

And PDF?  Of course they have meta-data capability as shown in the image below (click on picture for larger image) they have layers of it.  Examples are available for Adobe and in the PDF/A-1 (PDF) standard.

And the last technical point, the meta-data only has to be assigned once during the creation of the E-forms template.  This means that forms users don't really have to worry about the identification since it is always embedded in the document.

Current Court Forms Identification

During my brief research I found two states, Florida and West Virginia that have a forms identification number for their statewide forms.

West Virginia - uses a mnemonic-type approach.  For example, a Family Court Parent Education Coordinator's Invoice Form is designated “FPECINV Rev. 02/2012 (previously SCA-FC-PE-602).  While I actually like the previously structure better (the part in the parentheses), the new naming structure is unique and has the active date of the form.

Florida has posted forms online that have a section designation and then a reference number and active date.  For example the Florida Family Law Rules of Procedure Form 12.900(a), Dislosure From Nonlawyer (02/06).

While the IT developers can work with that, some coding and a consistent structure would significantly help.  So in part two of this series we will get back to our court form “problems” and potential benefits of an E-forms meta-data identification standard, and some structure to consider.

Next Post

Part 2 of this series will discuss the benefits to the courts and court information users from consistent E-forms identification meta-data.


  1. It is exciting to see this recommendation on standardization of state court form metadata. This would seem to imply a requirement for forms to be available in XML (or is that just my wishful thinking?).

    Forms are an excellent place to start; there is so much more of the courts' workflow that could benefit from standard metadata. I'd love to hear Mr. McMillan's thoughts on how the political will for this standardization could be generated.

  2. Ari - thanks for writing.

    It seems like PDF is here to stay for forms. But in
    parallel if we can build the meta-data into the standard word processing tools it will help.

    In the next article I list a few organizations that might be able to include these ideas in their work.

  3. I like where this is going. If there was some way to create national metadata tags for documents based on their functionality that would be great. Since courts/states use different terms for different types of pleading/motion--if those could be simplified into concepts that share what they do, for example:
    pleading, petition, =start a case
    summons and complaint, precipe=give notice to parties in a case
    IFP, fee waiver=request waiver of court filing fees
    demurrer, answer=respond to a summons and complaint, in full or not

    Once the functionality tags are created-they could be added to documents that get submitted and vendors could use those meta tags to move the documents w/in their system and share them w/judges, clerks, calendaring functions, depending on what the document is filed for.

    This would probably have additional benefits--as it would get us talking about documents as means of communication with courts and other parties--which is in fact what they are. That type of concept would make the legal process simpler to understand and simpler to follow--and it could lead to overall systems and court simplification.

  4. Thanks for sharing this. I think that eForms have been a very productive way to do things in a much quicker and effective way. With most business being done on computers these day, we though that it would be a good thing to invest in.