Company spurs courts to file electronically

@Court Inc. home page

In an effort to jump-start a market, start-up company @Court Inc. officially made its debut earlier this month and announced a free software toolkit designed to help an estimated 3,300 federal and county courts move to electronic filing.

The @Court Connectivity Toolkit is based on Legal Extensible Markup Language (Legal XML), which is a new, open standard designed for legal documents such as filings, contracts and court proceedings. XML enables programmers to design ways of describing information, usually for storage, transmission or processing by a program.

"The toolkit allows the courts to be up and e-filing in 60 to 90 days," said John Healy, president and founder of @Court. It is also the first working e-filing application based on Legal XML, he added. "This open-source initiative creates a legal playground where everything is fair."

Courts can use the toolkit, which hooks up to a court's case management system, to accept attorneys' electronic filings as PDF files.

Nationwide, courts accept about 370 million filings per year, so e-filing presents "a huge market opportunity," said Kevin Nickels, chief executive officer of @Court. "What's been missing is a standard way of doing this." The tool-kit, Nickels said, accelerates courts' acceptance of e-filings and support for Legal XML.

The toolkit is laying the groundwork for a fee-based e-filing service that @Court expects to officially launch in June. The Web-based service works with any court system that has a Legal XML interface and will cost $15 per filing — compared with the $125 cost to process a paper filing today.

About 40 courts in the country already support some form of e-filing, Nickels said, and California has mandated that its courts use it by 2003. But there has been limited acceptance of the service mainly because the systems have been proprietary.

"Attorneys aren't tolerant of things that aren't easy to use," Nickels said. The @Court e-filing service, which the company is testing now, will allow lawyers to file to any court through a single secure Web site, he said.

The U.S. District Court in New Mexico, one of the first courts to support e-filing, went live with the service in 1997, said Robert March, clerk of court. The court was a beta tester for the @Court software toolkit and is now integrating XML features into its internal Advanced Court Engineering system, now dubbed Production ACE.

March said XML "is wonderful because it directs segments to where you want to go in your system. It's going to revolutionize the way programming is accomplished, and it's only just beginning to be utilized."

@Court's approach is somewhat unusual because the company is essentially creating its own marketplace by releasing a free Legal XML toolkit, said Nancy Tubb, senior analyst at the Delphi Group. "What @Court has seen is a real need that these civil courts have," she said.

Writing applications using Legal XML makes integration "very, very easy," Tubb said. "@Court is really the first company to operationalize that standard."

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