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State courts look to pass judgment on XML

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Lawyers, courts and legal cases generate mountains of paperwork, but a few states have taken the ground-breaking step to allow electronic filing of documents directly to court Web sites for processing over their intranets.

While e-filing is catching on in states such as Georgia, New Mexico, California and Washington, the process of managing legal documents online raises thorny questions about the need for signatures, common security practices and technical standards for interoperability in document exchange. Counties today take varying approaches to e-filing, but there is a growing consensus that the document-encoding technology called XML can be the basis for statewide - and perhaps even nationwide - electronic filing.

Georgia has led the charge, as its judiciary and universities have devised an XML tagging specification for the courts dubbed Legal XML. The specification will go on trial next week as four Georgia courts and four e-filing services show how it can be used to transmit XML-based documents to court servers and to competing e-filing services.

These courts and document clearinghouses today can't easily share electronic documents. But the use of format-neutral XML tags encoded around content is expected to make it easier to process information received over the Internet as long as the application server receiving it supports XML, too.

"We're filing electronically in several courts now, but they all use different systems," says Jerry Garland, project manager at Georgia's court automation commission, a division of the Georgia Commission of the Supreme Court, which oversees 1,000 courts in 159 Georgia counties.

The Georgia commission funded research by Georgia State University to devise the Legal XML format under the direction of lawyer Todd Vincent.

XML mandate

Georgia intends to mandate XML as a technology standard if interoperability testing of it with two superior courts, two state courts and four e-filing service providers goes as planned. The vendors involved are @court, e-filing.com, Counterclaim.com and Verilaw.

"Vendors like us can provide XML data to the electronic file manager for each case management system," says Mohammed Shaikh, CEO at e-filing.com, which receives documents in various formats, translates them into the court-required format and tracks document flow.

Shaikh notes that Georgia also wants to have uniform rules for business practices, such as using encryption and responding when a Web server goes down.

Georgia hopes to complete the testing of Legal XML by August, and if it works out, it's likely to be required for use in courts statewide. In addition, backers of Legal XML formed a nonprofit organization last winter (see www.LegalXML.org) to promote it as a national standard.

XML process diagram

Some Georgia courts have objected to Legal XML, electing not to jump on the Legal XML bandwagon.

"In Cherokee County, we've taken a different approach," says Judge Charles Robertson, who helped oversee the implementation of a LAN-based e-filing system in his courthouse last month for processing legal claims received directly over the Web or from third-party providers.

Robertson, who now has a PC at his desk to review cases electronically, is not convinced Legal XML is ready for deployment and worries that it might be too expensive.

"This is a small magistrate's court, and we're looking for something simple here," he says. Robertson says the e-filing system just put in place is the first step to give citizens easier access to the court and for the court's telecommuting clerical staff to work from home, if needed.

Judging XML

Bob March

There's other evidence, though, that XML should be considered innocent until proven guilty.

"The XML language is the most powerful I've seen to help us accelerate use of e-filing," says Bob March, clerk of court at the U.S. District Court in New Mexico, which has used e-filing for about three years.

The New Mexico court is redesigning its court management system to support XML. The court in Albuquerque has a T-1 line for receiving legal documents processed through the @court hosted service for receipt by 14 judges.

"Once filed, these documents become immediately available to clerks and the judges, so everyone likes it," March says.

Sign of the times

The states and various counties embracing e-filing don't necessarily have the same perspective on whether electronic documents need to be signed when submitted.

In Georgia, the courts have settled on a rule that some sort of electronic signature has to be attached to documents. Typically, this is not a public-key digital signature, but a bitmap, which can be affixed like a stamp to the e-document, e-filing.com's Shaikh says.

In Robertson's court, the basis for validating a document rests on requiring credit card payment for the filed document and a phone number to check the sender's whereabouts.

Because the court is limited to reviewing cases related to claims up to $15,000 and in-person appearances are required in trying cases, this method of verifying the electronic document is sufficient, the judge asserts.

"All a signature is is a derivation, and this is a method for determining where a mark was derived," he says.

California only began allowing e-filing within the last year and is interested in backing statewide standards for it, says Michael Geller, a lawyer at the Merino Valley, Calif., law firm Geller and Stewart. His law firm sends its court filings to the Riverside County courthouse as imaged TIFF files to service provider e-filing.com, which converts them into the format the court wants.

"But California doesn't require a signature on an electronic document," Geller says. "Riverside basically took the attitude that if you send your document electronically, it's signed."

But old-fashioned paper still has to be signed to be considered valid by the court in California.

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