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Computer Counselor - February 2000

The Central District Bankruptcy Court Goes Online

Computer advances are more than window dressing at this notoriously busy courtBy Jon D. Ceretto and J. Scott Bovitz

Jon D. Ceretto is the executive officer of the U. S. Bankruptcy Court for the Central District of California and the architect of the court's technology program.
  J. Scott Bovitz is a certified specialist in personal and small business bankruptcy and tests bankruptcy court computer systems. 

At the U. S. Bankruptcy Court for the Central District of California, the virtual courtroom is no longer a novelty but an everyday means of doing business. As Internet use expands and the court's online services improve, the court is on the verge of allowing attorneys and other members of the public to transact most business with judges, litigants, and clerks without going to the courthouse. The linchpins for this transformation are the Internet, WebPacer, and VideoHearing. 

In early 1997 the court established a Web site (http://www.cacb.uscourts.gov) that posts local bankruptcy court rules, official court forms (they can be downloaded and edited), directions to all divisional offices, special instructions from each judge (the "local local" rules), general orders of the court, public notices, and other court information. The court updates the site daily to better communicate with employees and the public. 

The court took another step in early 1998 with WebPacer. Utilizing intranet-extranet technology and software provided by Wade Systems, a supplier to the federal judiciary, WebPacer allows attorneys and others to retrieve and print documents from court files. WebPacer eliminated the need to travel to the clerk's office to review or copy case dockets, orders, calendars, or common pleadings. Tentative court rulings posted on WebPacer eliminate appearances at selected hearings. Through WebPacer, the court will soon allow electronic filing of pleadings. Today, users can obtain the following information from WebPacer: 

  1. With Case Docket, users can obtain dockets for cases filed since 1994. For quality control reasons, the docket shows entries up to the prior day but not entries on the day of access.   
  2. With Case Documents, users can retrieve, save on their computers, view, and print copies of some pleadings. Printed copies are exact replicas of court pleadings, including signatures and marginalia. The quality of downloaded documents is equal to or better than a good fax. Petitions since 1999, schedules, court orders, chapter 11 plans, and chapter 13 plans are available in the TIFF format. Soon the court will save the documents as Adobe Acrobat PDF files. Users can download the viewer for PDF documents for free from the Internet. Documents are made available to the public on WebPacer the business day after they are received and imaged by the court.   
  3. Users can use Court Calendar to determine court times and parties. Some judges post partial calendars several months in advance.   
  4. Eleven of the district's 21 bankruptcy judges post tentative rulings prior to a hearing. With the use of tentative rulings, prevailing parties do not have to attend the scheduled hearing, thereby saving themselves considerable time and expense.
The WebPacer system was designed to harmonize service for the public, attorneys, judges, clerk's office, court staff, trustees, and bankruptcy administrators of the Central District of California, where approximately 10 percent of the nation's bankruptcy filings are made. This tremendously busy court receives approximately 120,000 bankruptcy filings per year and employs more than 400 deputy clerks. The Los Angeles division alone has more than 150,000 active files and employs 26 records clerks who process approximately 75,000 public requests for files each year. Clearly, if there is a court where increased efficiency can be a welcome change, the Central District of California is the one.

A study conducted during November 1996 revealed that approximately 60 percent of the total requests for files are for bankruptcy petitions, schedules, plans, and orders. Accordingly, petitions, schedules, plans, and orders were given priority for posting on WebPacer. By making case files more accessible to the public and reducing the public's reliance on paper documents, the clerk's office has already seen a significant decrease in the number of requests at the public window for files and photocopying-a decrease that reduces the loss of papers and permits a greater degree of security and integrity of official court records. 

Additional Benefits 

The shift from paper files to electronic files also allows interested parties to access case information and documents simultaneously. Besides reducing the back-and-forth routing of files and the attendant risk of loss, simultaneous electronic access also results in the faster processing of case information and documents than was possible under the previous paper-oriented system. Imaging and online case files have resulted in a more efficient means of processing cases at a time when caseloads are rising and funding is decreasing. This has also resulted in a more technically proficient work force at the clerk's office. 

In addition to the external customers of the court, WebPacer also provides significant benefits to the court's judges and staff. Document security, which is always a problem with public paper files, is increased because only court staff has access to the imaging server. Furthermore, judges and court staff in all divisions now have instant access to scanned files in all divisions. Even within a single court location, the time previously necessary to retrieve papers is eliminated. In Los Angeles, for example, the clerk's office and the court chambers are not in the same building, but this logistical hurdle is easy to clear in cyberspace. For those patrons who are already at the court, WebPacer access is provided free of charge on court-provided computers. Such an improvement has a clear capacity for good public relations. 

In 1998, the court implemented its third step, VideoHearing. The Central District of California's five divisional courthouses handle cases arising in seven large counties-from San Luis Obispo in the north to Orange in the south and Riverside in the east. In such a large district, judicial resources may not always match the needs of geographic case filings. With VideoHearing, a judge can hear a complete caseload in one division while sitting in another, saving time and travel. 

Since the court's first use of VideoHearing on April 8, 1998, Judge John Ryan has appeared on a monitor in Riverside while physically sitting in Santa Ana. In September 1998, Judge Ellen Carroll joined the cadre of cyberjudges when she held her first hearing in the San Fernando Valley courthouse from in front of a camera in downtown Los Angeles. Judge James Barr of the court's Santa Ana division was added in September 1999 and hears cases from Riverside and San Bernardino. 

Court computers have not eliminated paperwork. A litigant does nothing differently when filing a case in Riverside. The court's intake computers randomly assign a judge. All document filing, case processing, and setting of calendars are handled in Riverside or San Fernando Valley, including cases assigned to a remote judge. Copies of the documents that are necessary for a virtual judge's hearings are sent to the judge's chambers for case preparation. The court is in the process of adding the necessary infrastructure to allow attorneys and litigants to make regular court appearances in living color from remote locations, including their law offices. 

As a fourth and final step in the creation of the virtual court, the court intends to accept electronic filing of routine court documents. Since about 1995, the Complex Litigation Automated Docket (CLAD) system by Lexis has been used to allow electronic filing of documents in a few selected high-profile federal cases. Unfortunately, CLAD was cumbersome and requires users to sign up with Lexis. Last year, several federal courts started piloting a program called ECF (Electronic Case Files) over the Internet. ECF has not yet been accepted for widespread implementation by other courts-and may also be too limited for use in large courts with a varied litigant base, such as the Central District of California. Over the next year, the court will be evaluating the success and failure of existing systems and begin implementation of its own electronic filing system. 

Electronic filing, video hearings, and other aspects of virtual courts do not occur easily. The court needed to resolve numerous technical as well as nontechnical issues. It had to change court culture, manage expectations, transition from legacy systems, and teach the court team and outsiders how to use the new system. More work remains to be done. 

Generally, courts are conservative and highly resistant to change. Yet courts can utilize technology to dramatically improve access and assist with legal proceedings. As with any new initiative, success depends on understanding how the stakeholders-including judges, attorneys, and court staff-will use the system. In the court, everyone has worked very hard to fit the technology to the court's culture and to mimic the best aspects of existing systems and practices. Virtual court is working now, and it is expected to continue to grow.

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