Friday, October 1, 2021

Closing the Electronic Loop and Automating Processes Along the Way


John Gustafson & Jim McMillan at CTC2021

We are happy to share the winner of the CTC McMillan Scholarship, John Gustafson, Data Quality Manager, First Judicial Circuit of Florida.  I was happy to meet John at the conference and learn more about his great work for the court.  His award winning submission follows.  

In the First Judicial Circuit of Florida, we pride ourselves on our innovative practices.  I  have been tasked with discovering and implementing new processes to save our Judges, Judicial  Assistants and other staff members time while still providing the same level of service to our customers.  This paper will give some background on some of our innovative practices and will outline our newest endeavor.  One of our goals was to ‘close the electronic loop’.  The vision was for documents that begin as digital to remain that way throughout the entire process.    

In 2012, we began the process of eliminating paper files and moving to an electronic paperless system in one of our counties.   We implemented the aiSmartBench product from Mentis Technology Solutions.  This solution synchronizes with the Clerk’s case management system and creates a copy of the docket entries and the documents in the court file.  In essence we have a duplicate copy of the official Court file that the Clerk keeps.   That makes our innovation much easier since the things we do on our side will not affect the official Court file until we file something in a case.   We now have the aiSmartBench solution implemented in all four counties in the Circuit.  Our solution also includes an electronic signing feature so Judges are able to digitally sign orders.  

After we did away with the paper files in Judicial offices and courtrooms the next step was to get our digitally signed orders to the Clerk’s offices for entry into the official Court file.   Printing those orders for delivery to the Clerk’s office that they would then have to scan and turn back into digital documents was an option but certainly would have been a step backwards.      

We realized that the Florida Courts E-Filing Portal (ePortal) may be the answer to our problem.   The Florida Courts E-Filing Portal has been in existence for over ten years and has been very successful in getting electronic documents to the various Clerk’s offices for inclusion  in the official Court file.  The solution to the problem we had of keeping the Court orders digital for submission to the court file could be via the ePortal.     

We were able to work with the ePortal staff and Mentis Technology Solutions to create a route for our digital documents to be delivered to the Clerk’s offices electronically.  After working through the processes with the Clerk’s offices in our Circuit as well as the Judges and Judicial Assistants, signed orders are now submitted via an aiSmartBench interface to the ePortal and delivered to the Clerk’s office electronically for docketing in the official Court file. Electronic service is also handled at the same time the signed order is submitted.  After entering the case number for the signed order, the Judicial Assistants are presented with a party list that they can use to select who should get service of the order, and they also have the option to add additional parties to the list for service.  This got us one step closer to closing the electronic loop.   

This ties directly into another concept we have embraced here.   We call it ‘one stream’.  That thought is that all the orders the Judiciary submits travel to the Clerk’s office the same way, on ‘one stream’.   In our case all orders are submitted to the Clerk’s office via the ePortal.  We have applied that same concept to documents for Judicial review.   The goal is to get all incoming documents using ‘one stream’ to get to the Judges and Judicial Assistants.  

We were again fortunate enough to work with the ePortal and Mentis on a module for ‘Proposed Documents’.   This module at the ePortal allows agencies, and attorneys, to submit documents for Judicial review.   It also allows Pro Se parties to do the same thing, utilizing a simple to use web interface.  The configuration at the ePortal for the Judiciary is also configurable.   There is an option to require cover letters or make them optional.   There is also an option to require specific file types depending on the document submitted.   In our Circuit we require proposed orders to be submitted in Word format so the document may be edited by the Judge as necessary.     

After the document is submitted at the ePortal for review the interface brings the proposed document into our aiSmartBench solution.  The document is available for review seconds after it was submitted at the ePortal.  This solution has a major benefit for the Judicial Assistants.   The proposed documents submitted via the ePortal come to us as ‘smart documents’.   We call ‘smart documents’, documents that come to us with the case number already associated with it.  Since the documents get to us with the case number already included the Judicial Assistants no longer have to enter the case number when submitting the signed order back to the Clerk.  As you can imagine this is a significant time saver.  Depending on the court division a  Judicial Assistant can submit hundreds of signed orders in a week to the Clerk to be docketed in the Court file.  The addition of this feature has closed the electronic loop for us.     

This is where our latest innovation comes in.  As I observed the Judicial Assistants going through the process of electronically submitting signed orders (efiling) via the ePortal to the Clerk’s office I realized that task is very repetitive.  Computers are very good at automating repetitive tasks.    

The manual task of efiling consists of several very basic steps.  The simplest description is the document is selected, the next step is selecting from a tab where the document should go, the ePortal is one of tab options, and then click Submit.  An electronic handshake is done between aiSmartBench and the ePortal and the document is then submitted to the Clerk’s office.  None of those steps are complex but you can imagine if a Judicial Assistant is submitting hundreds of orders that will be very time consuming.  Automating this process will allow the  Judicial Assistants to handle other tasks for the Judges.  

After doing some research I found that a Windows macro program would be a good solution for the repetitive efiling task.  I found several that would work and allowed for a free download and trial period, both of which are important when working within State budget constraints.  After trying several different products I settled on Macro Recorder.  

This program is designed for desktop automation.  It records mouse movements, mouse clicks and keyboard strokes, which makes it the perfect fit to automate our efiling process.  The setup was very easy and now I have a macro configured to submit our orders to the Clerk’s office using the aiSmartBench interface with the ePortal.  The program runs on a standalone laptop that was scheduled to be excessed.  The program doesn’t require many computing resources, so this laptop solution is working very well.   

We also gave the laptop and process a name, JONI, Judicial Optimizing Network Interface.  We named it after a recently retired Judicial Assistant who was an early adopter of all the digital processes we have implemented.  She was also willing to test some of our new processes and offered suggestions for improvement.    

Now instead of the Judicial Assistants going through the manual process for efiling signed orders they simply move those signed orders to a designated folder and JONI handles the rest.    

Unlike some of the other process changes we have implemented, the savings for automated efiling are easily measurable.  JONI is currently configured to electronically submit two signed orders per minute.  That time allows for the electronic handshake, and the document upload to the ePortal, which would also be the case if the orders were uploaded manually.  If  JONI only electronically submitted 120 orders a week, that would allow a Judicial Assistant an hour to work on other tasks.   Over the course of a year, that would be over a week of productivity recovered.  That example would be for a single Judicial Assistant, in our Circuit we have over 30 Judicial Assistants that have the capability of using JONI for electronic document submission.  One additional benefit, JONI never takes a break, doesn’t go to lunch, and is available to work 24x7.     

We have done several innovative projects to get us to this point.  First, we eliminated paper files, then we found a single stream to keep our signed orders digital when submitting to the Clerk’s office, after that we found another single stream to receive proposed documents for Judicial review in digital format and now, thanks to JONI, we have automated the efiling process.   

1 comment:

  1. This is an excellent example of how courts of any size can leverage technology to modernize their operations. Congratulations.