Courts shift to e-filings

Litigants in federal court lawsuits are now allowed to serve various legal documents via e-mail and fax rather than by paper mail as long as both sides in the suit agree.

New rules approved by the Supreme Court and the Judicial Conference of the United States permit the electronic delivery of such documents as pleadings, motions and briefs. The rules apply to civil cases in U.S. district and bankruptcy courts.

The shift to electronic documents will save lawyers time and money and create new opportunities for last-minute filings, predicted Charles Bogino, a lawyer who works in federal bankruptcy and district courts in Washington, D.C.

"A lot of people who are computer-savvy are really going to like it," Bogino said. "The law has to get with the 21st century. It doesn't make a lot of sense, given the technology we have now, to still require" documents to be typed on paper, bound in cardboard folders and hand-delivered, he said.

"A lot of lawyers do things up to the last minute," and being able to deliver motions via e-mail will give them more time, he said. "For the old codgers in this business, it could be pretty frightening," but both parties have to agree to the electronic filing.

The Judicial Conference, which announced the rules changes Dec. 3, said the new rules also permit courts to serve court orders electronically if all parties consent. With electronic documents, "you'd have court orders in hand a lot sooner, which is helpful if you need to get something done in a hurry, such as stay an adverse action against your client or to execute a judgment," he said.

"The judiciary, like everyone else, is moving away from paper," said David Sellers, a spokesman for the Judicial Conference, which is the principal policy-making body for the federal court system.

Another benefit of electronic filing is that in most cases, the documents should be available to the public via the Internet, Sellers said, just as paper records are available for perusal in courthouses.

One instance in which electronic documents are not acceptable is the filing of documents that initiate litigation. Those must still be served on paper to avoid any question that parties being sued have been notified, Sellers said. Once served initial documents, parties will have an opportunity to decide whether to accept subsequent filings electronically.

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