ANNAPOLIS — Anne Arundel County began a paperless progression Tuesday with the start of a Maryland Judiciary project that will require attorneys and allow self-represented litigants to file civil claims and documents electronically.
All courts in the county — from the Maryland District Court all the way up to the Court of Appeals — are serving as the pilot sites for the Maryland Electronic Courts project, popularly called MDEC. The Judiciary plans to phase in MDEC within the next few years at a cost of about $75 million.
Maryland’s courts must catch up with the paperless technology school children are using, Maryland District Court Chief Judge John P. Morrissey said Tuesday.
“We’re already behind the curve,” Morrissey said while demonstrating the online tool at the District Court in Annapolis. “This is bringing us to the curve.”
To spur attorneys to register for electronic filing, trial-court clerks in Anne Arundel County will stop accepting paper filings in civil, family and juvenile cases on Nov. 14.
The goal is to reduce the time, expense and clutter of civil litigation for attorneys, judges and court clerks, Morrissey said.
Lawyers can submit court documents from their computers, wherever they are; clerks will no longer have to use filing cabinets; and judges need not keep stacks of court records while on the bench, added Morrissey, chairman of the Judiciary’s MDEC Advisory Committee.
Under the Judiciary’s pilot program, Anne Arundel County will be the only jurisdiction with e-filing for the next six months. MDEC will expand to the Eastern Shore in the spring and across the state, with an unofficial completion goal of three years.
On its MDEC website, the Judiciary stated that “e-filing for attorneys will become mandatory county by county” as conversion to the e-filing system proceeds. “Courts will collect, store, and process records electronically, and will be able to instantly access complete records as cases travel from district court to circuit court and on to the appellate courts.”
When fully operational, the on-line tool developed by Plano, Texas-based Tyler Technologies Inc. will enable lawyers to file electronically to any court in the state simply by typing in its name, thus saving attorneys the cost of gas or postage, the Judiciary said.
The filing will be electronically time-stamped and assigned to a judge. Subsequent filings in the case will also be made electronically, the Judiciary added.
Annapolis lawyer N. Tucker Meneely said he had difficulty Tuesday finding a case online that he had filed prior to the launch. On Twitter, he called the search engine “wonky.”
However, Meneely soon found the case with “really helpful” tech support from Tyler Technologies.
“I think it’s just growing pains and it’s expected with a launch,” said Meneely, of Council, Baradel, Kosmerl & Nolan P.A. “But overall I was very impressed by it.”
Attorney Scott MacMullan, an Annapolis solo practitioner, said he welcomes e-filing’s arrival.
“We might have done it one way for a hundred years, but times change,” said MacMullan, who did not attend the Tuesday demonstration. “The less paper the more efficiently work can be done.”
Morrissey said the benefits of e-filing spread beyond the bar, bench and clerks to the general public, who will have shorter lines at the clerk’s office.
“The lawyers aren’t going to be lining up at the counter,” he said. “They’re going to be filing electronically.”
Courthouse rooms now dedicated to filing cabinets can be put to other uses, such as meeting places for lawyers and litigants, he added.
Morrissey, who was a sitting District Court judge for nine years, predicted fellow jurists will enjoy the ability to scan through documents on line and to sign orders electronically.
Meanwhile, judges who still prefer to put ink to paper can print out the order, sign it and scan the document back into the system, he said.
Morrissey added the most popular feature among “senior” judges he has spoken with is the ability to enlarge the type size of documents on the computer screen.
“They seemed to really appreciate that,” he said.
Plans for an e-filing system in Maryland’s courts began about seven years ago with Ben C. Clyburn, Morrissey’s predecessor as chief judge, who attended the Tuesday demonstration and praised MDEC’s launch.
With MDEC, clerks will no longer spend hours searching for paper documents and bench warrants will not be left on someone’s desk, said Clyburn, who stepped down from the bench May 31.
“That day is gone,” he added.
With e-filing, “you’re going to have real data, better data and the opportunity to move data quicker,” Clyburn added. “[Users] are going to say, ‘Why didn’t we do this earlier?’”