Before you send your fictional lawyer or legal assistant to the courthouse to file those papers, check whether your story state allows electronic court filing. Some even require it, as the federal courts do.
Now, that doesn’t mean that all filings are visible online. In the federal courts, the PACER system (short for Public Access to Court Electronic Records) provides access to all case and docket information filings by parties and the bankruptcy, district, and appellate courts, including the Supreme Court. Users must register, but need not be lawyers. A small fees is charged — 10 cents a page, capped at $3 a document, with charges under $15/quarter waived — to cover the costs of running the system. Here’s what’s available, according to the system website:
“PACER provides access to federal case information nationwide. The PACER system offers quick, accurate information about current federal cases. You can obtain:
- A listing of all parties and participants including judges, attorneys and trustees
- A compilation of case related information such as cause of action, nature of suit and dollar demand
- A chronology of dates of case events entered in the case record
- A claims registry
- A listing of new cases each day in all courts
- Written judicial opinions
- Judgments or case status”
In some jurisdictions, the pleadings themselves may be available through PACER; each court maintains its own database, and systems differ. Information is available in real time, because of the mandatory ECF or Electronic Court Filing system.
In Montana, the Supreme Court and a handful of districts will begin a pilot program in 2014, to switch from paper to electronic filing, using an electronic file manager similar to the federal system. Rules and manuals are still being developed. Because filings often contain confidential information, access will be limited to judges, attorneys, and court staff; the public will have to go to the court to read files, to limit dissemination of confidential information online. Washington and many other states already use similar systems. Be aware that they vary, and don’t always include lower courts such as justice and municipal courts, where parties often represent themselves.
Clerks of court believe electronic filing will make things easier for all the parties involved, eliminate the lag time of sending and receiving paper documents and reduce the costs of postage and driving to file documents. The change will require some adjustment, especially for judges. Clerks may need to help parties who represent themselves.
So there goes one more reason to get your fictional lawyer or law firm staffer out of the office and give her the opportunity to snoop, overhear a conversation in the clerk’s office, or run into a witness in the hallway. Electronic systems make everything easier—except when they don’t!
Top left: Historic postcard of the Old Flathead County Courthouse, Kalispell, Montana, from the Montana Historical Society. Bottom right: the Missoula County Courthouse in Missoula.