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.
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 - http://www.courtswv.gov/legal-community/court-forms.html 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.
Part 2 of this series will discuss the benefits to the courts and court information users from consistent E-forms identification meta-data.