Courthouse clerks, judges and attorneys are steadily adapting to a two-month-old shift to a paperless system under a Maryland Judiciary project requiring lawyers to file civil claims and related documents electronically in Anne Arundel County courts.
Robert P. Duckworth, clerk of the Anne Arundel County Circuit Court, said he and his staff have been working long hours since the Annapolis courthouse’s civil docket began moving toward an electronic system on Oct. 14. Much of the work has involved scanning paper files into the fledgling digital system during the day and reviewing electronic files after hours.
“It’s tiring work,” said Duckworth. “We’re working nights and we’re working weekends.”
Anne Arundel County’s circuit and district courts are serving as the pilot sites for the Judiciary’s Maryland Electronic Courts project, popularly called MDEC.
As part of the pilot project, attorneys were told to e-file in the Anne Arundel County courts as of Oct. 14. However, e-filing did not become mandatory for attorneys until Nov. 14, precipitating a flood of paper filings in the preceding days from attorneys who were not quite ready to submit by computer, Duckworth said.
“There are no surprises here,” he added. “I knew the first four or five weeks would be tough.”
Duckworth, who has served as clerk for 20 years, said he anticipates night and weekend work will be required until mid-January, when the transfer should be about complete.
“We’re still in a hybrid world,” Duckworth said, referring to the paper files to be scanned and those files already on computer. “We’ve got to move out of the paper world. We see the light at the end of the tunnel.”
Anne Arundel County Circuit Judge Paul A. Hackner said the shift to electronic filing already has removed much of the paper clutter from the desks of jurists, who still have paper files for many of the cases before them.
“It’s a challenge for the judges to think in two different worlds,” said Hackner, the court’s administrative judge. “Just kind of switching gears is always a challenge.”
But Hackner said he and his colleagues welcome the move from paper to electronic files.
“We’re going to be on the bench looking at a computer screen,” he added. “We’re not going to have a file [to] thumb through.”
Maryland District Court Chief Judge John P. Morrissey, who chairs the Judiciary’s MDEC Advisory Committee, said the system has required some “tweaking” to address concerns about online files and delays as paper files are scanned in.
“There were no major issues at all with the system,” Morrissey said of the first two months. “We’re moving forward, not backward. You cannot conduct business in the modern world without electronic filing.”
Annapolis lawyer N. Tucker Meneely, who practices regularly before the county’s courts, said he has experienced a few “hiccups” in his efforts to file on line. In one instance, an online District Court form for a wrongful-detainer action did not contain a check-off box to have a summons sent to the opposing litigant, he said.
But the glitches have been “nothing that a phone call can’t fix,” added Meneely, who resolved the issues by speaking with someone in the clerk’s office.
“It’s not going to be perfect from the get-go,” said Meneely, an associate at Council, Baradel, Kosmerl & Nolan P.A. and a Daily Record blogger. “There is absolutely no reason to go back to paper. This is the future. It will make people’s lives easier.”
‘On the same page’
Developed by Plano, Texas-based Tyler Technologies Inc., the e-filing system will expand to the Eastern Shore in the spring and across the state over the next several years at a cost of about $75 million.
Anne Arundel County will be the only jurisdiction with e-filing for the next four months. Civil cases being appealed from the Anne Arundel County Circuit Court must be filed electronically in the Court of Special Appeals and the Court of Appeals. (Self-represented litigants may file electronically, but they are not required to do so.)
Duckworth said part of his responsibility in the MDEC pilot is to assist attorneys in the transition away from paper.
He says he has advised attorneys that they can speed the transition by not combining court documents in a single online filing. For example, a complaint should not be in the same PDF as a summary-judgment motion, he added.
“That’s becoming less of a problem,” Duckworth said of the bundled filings. “That’s part of the work process: making sure we’re on the same page.”
Annapolis lawyer Scott MacMullan said attorneys, judges and clerks are “getting used to” electronic filings.
“It’s kind of a learning experience for everyone,” added MacMullan, a solo practitioner who also blogs for The Daily Record. “There’s growing pains or system pains, but as time goes by there’s going to be a benefit.”
Hackner, the administrative judge, said he hopes attorneys do not fall into the Internet-driven expectation that they will get an instant reply to their online filings either from the clerk’s office or from a judge.
“We’ve all gotten very used to getting instant response when we buy something online,” Hackner said. “It is still a human-driven system. When an attorney files a complaint, it’s not going to be immediately dealt with.”