Efiling for Process Servers Returns of Service Coming Soon in big counties

Deadline a year away for e-filing in civil and family cases in Tarrant County

The Texas Supreme Court has been wrestling with questions of how to handle vast numbers of paper documents filed in civil courts across the state.

Electronic filing was on the drawing board for several years, and recently, the justices ruled that e-filing is mandatory in most courts for civil and family cases by the summer of 2016. The court ordered the mandatory switch to e-filing late last year to streamline the process and cut down on paper.

By this time next year cases in the state appeals courts and Texas Supreme Court must be filed electronically. The order also says that in Tarrant, Dallas and other counties with 500,000 or more people, officials have until January of 2014 to have e-filing in place. Other counties, depending on the population, have until July of 2016. The e-filing order does not include criminal courts.

“Disputes in court require the exchange of information. The primary medium of that exchange has been paper. Texas courts have struggled for over a century to process, manage, and store court documents. With the information age, it is now possible to receive and store those documents digitally,” the order stated.

The justices wrote that cases can be filed from any location, and that documents can be stored in a central location for easy access. It is also possible to quickly search for words or phrases using the electronic filing system.

Currently, federal courts require electronic filing, and in Texas, nine of the 14 appellate courts allow e-filing. Also, district clerks in over 50 counties with over 80 percent of the state’s population have e-filing in place, according to the Office of Court Administration.

The numbers of documents filed in court are expected to increase from half a million filings a year to several million filings annually in the future.

Some district clerks are questioning what the requirements will mean in terms of fee structures and county budgets.

Tarrant County District Clerk Tom Wilder said he will comply with the order, but isn’t happy about another “unfunded mandate.”

“I don’t believe in this top-down kind of initiative from the Supreme Court,” he said.

Wilder said he will discuss the new requirements with commissioners, and he is working on an estimate of how much it will cost the county.

Currently, Tarrant County offers fax filing, which costs $1 for the first page and fifty cents for each additional page. Cases are also filed by mail, or people can simply walk in to the district clerk’s office. Wilder said the fax filing system generates enough revenue to pay for itself.

Wilder said he also worries about losing some control over the filing process as the documents are sent to a central storage area before they are sent to Tarrant County. Wilder questioned what would happen if the e-filing system goes down.

The new e-filing rules don’t allow faxing unless there is an emergency, and attorneys will be required to use the TexFile system to submit petitions and other documents.

In Denton County, e-filing has been in place since 2007, said District Clerk Sherri Adelstein.

The system works well, she said. “It’s a lot easier and faster,” she said.

Adelstein said she is interested in seeing how the new electronic filing system will work since the Supreme Court doesn’t get as much paperwork as the lower courts.

In November, the Office of Court Administration chose Dallas-based Tyler Technologies to handle e-filing for the entire state. Anyone who files electronically must use the TexFile system which is expected to lower costs and lessen the workload for district clerks and other court employees.

Casey Kennedy, director of information services for the OCA, said counties can recover their costs for implementing e-filing by charging a $2 fee per filing. Counties can also request a higher fee if they find the $2 isn’t enough, he said. Collin County asked to increase its fee to $5.

When someone wants to file electronically, they must find a provider that will transmit the documents to the TexFile system. The cost varies depending on the type of services the providers offer.

Kennedy said that ultimately, the new e-filing system will streamline the tedious process of using paper, and that filing can be done 24 hours a day.

If a case is filed in Tarrant County, it would go to Tyler Technologies’ data center and then it would be transferred back to the clerk’s office where it would be accepted or rejected.