The challenge we have as courts is to turn documents into actionable information. We most commonly do this by re-entering data into the case management systems database. The courts can and should do better by using the software that most everyone already owns. We discuss below.
On multiple occasions, we have stressed that the document data is just as important, if not more than the field data in the case management systems. The problem is that we do very little do help our users to structure information before it is submitted to the courts. This comment also includes the court's favorite document format…forms.
Why should courts want to structure the documents? The goal should be to make them easier for our court software to use. The obvious benefit is to assist in data entry by extracting it from the document reducing staff work and increasing accuracy.
Document/file tabs are a common approach that courts use to structure documents and files to allow the judge to quickly navigate to the document or important information in the case file. An example is shown above. And the electronic version of “tabbing” has been previously written about here in the CTB for reference.
For almost 30 years essentially all type-written documents have been created with word processing software. And concurrently, while most court forms may not be completed using word processing, some are. Since Microsoft Word it is the most widely used program for creating documents, it makes sense to look at using and sharing its capabilities for templates that have the structure and fields identified.
Please note, this isn’t a 100% foolproof perfect approach. Users will edit the documents and remove the features. But we believe that over time and with training, it is possible that more data and structure can be retained and submitted via E-Filing.
Currently, most courts only allow PDF documents for E-Filing submission. But, in the early days of E-Filing, several projects accepted the Word versions of the documents. After receiving them, the court’s CCMS software would “read” the data contained within, enter it into the data fields, and in turn save the “file stamped/conformed” copy as the official record. We are suggesting that this idea can be used again.
Another technology has been developed since those early days. Since 2003 Microsoft Word has used XML ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Office_Open_XML ) as its underpinning for document files. It is possible then to use XML to identify data and sections in a document template without it being displayed to the user. This would potentially allow the document sections such as the case caption, the fact section, etc. to be identified. Legal publishers have also provided the ability to hyperlink to material in their online legal research systems to further enrich the document submission.
Specifically, Microsoft Word has an InsertXML expression that can potentially be used to add markup to documents. For more technical detail on this see the MSDN page on this here and here.
A good introductory article on creating Microsoft Word forms that may also be useful in your planning is available here.
But if you don’t feel like reading there is a YouTube version on importing and using XML is available here. And regarding forms here.
Last, here is an interesting article about creating a Word add-in that uses XML. I could see this potentially used to build interactive templates.
The bottom line is that the smarter we make our documents, the more work that E-filing and the CCMS can do for us.
Postscript: I fear to pass this along since it may support some who want to keep their physical file folders, but the Post-it note tab approach is so popular that they are an actual discreet product by 3M. For more click here.