E-filing court system goes statewide; public access still to be addressed

By Chuck Lindell
Austin American-Statesman
Originally published Sept. 30, 2015

Saving an estimated 30 million pieces of paper a year, every major civil court in Texas has begun requiring lawyers and litigants to file documents electronically, providing 24-hour access to the courthouse for anybody with a computer and an Internet connection.

The electronic filing system is now available in all 254 Texas counties, and the milestone — reached nine months ahead of schedule — will be celebrated Wednesday at the Texas Supreme Court, which mandated the change in 2012.

“It’s been a major, detailed project. You don’t just wave a wand and have all of this happen,” Chief Justice Nathan Hecht told the American-Statesman. “This is the largest electronic filing court project in the country. No other state has anything approaching what we’re doing.”

Using the e-filing system is mandatory in counties with a population of 50,000 or more. Civil courts in counties with at least 20,000 people will be required to go electronic Jan. 1, with the state’s smallest counties joining the system by July 2016, Hecht said.

Litigants without a lawyer or a computer can still file paper copies of lawsuits, briefs and motions, he said.

The $72 million system, developed by Tyler Technologies of Plano, required a massive effort to be able to communicate with each county’s software and case-management systems, as well as training for clerks and lawyers, said David Slayton, director of the Office of Court Administration.

The next step, however, will be among the most difficult: deciding how to make court documents available to the public at the click of a computer key.

Some court records contain personal information that could aid identity thieves, Hecht said. Although the vast majority of those documents are available to the public, there is a big difference between needing to go to a courthouse and having computer access to records from anywhere in the world, he said.

Programs that automatically redact personal information could be one answer, but they work best as documents are filed. Providing computer access to already-filed records is proving to be more challenging, Hecht said.

The Supreme Court, which will set rules of access unless the Legislature steps in, hopes to weigh suggestions from the Judicial Committee on Information Technology within the next several months — next year at the latest, Hecht said.

The state’s criminal courts are taking a different approach, at least for now.

The Court of Criminal Appeals is preparing to sign an order allowing criminal courts to accept electronically filed records beginning Nov. 1, said presiding Judge Sharon Keller.

“Local jurisdictions will decide whether to adopt e-filing, and if they do, filers can still file paper if they want to,” Keller said. “We’re planning a meeting in April where we will look at how we’ve done and decide if it should become mandatory.”

Criminal courts in 43 counties, including Williamson and Hays, are ready to join the e-filing system, Slayton said.