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Digital Documents

Picture this: distressed legal assistant, hair amuck, shirt untucked, rushes into the courthouse, bent file folder in hand, papers askew. The court’s deputies are shutting down for the day, but not before the assistant empties her pockets to run through the metal detector. Before the last clerk shuts the gate down on his desk, the assistant has pushed papers before him for file stamping, just as the clock chimes for closing time. Phew! Just in time!

As of January 1, 2018, mandated electronic court filing in civil matters (“e-filing”) arrived in Illinois, bringing an end to this mad dash. E-filing brings civil litigation into the electronic age, where a person, whether attorney or self-represented litigant, can open a lawsuit from the convenience of her desk, receive filed documents directly to her e-mail, and schedule a court hearing without the need for a visit to the courthouse or even a phone call. Whether the process actually simplifies our lives, remains to be seen.

While Illinois attorneys have been dreading, or dreaming, of e-filing for two years since mandated by the Illinois Supreme Court, electronic filing is nothing new. It has been mandatory for attorneys operating in federal courts for over a decade, and for Illinois Appellate and Supreme Court filings since last summer. Some counties, like Cook County, have had their own e-filing system for several years.

There are many benefits to e-filing. For one, the mad dash should become non-existent. Deadlines are determined by the individual circuit, but in many the clock runs until midnight.

Since e-filing requires e-mail addresses from all parties involved, and most (but not all) counties, such as Champaign County, allow for electronic service of documents, e-filing also eliminates concerns about documents lost in the mail. If you’ve electronically filed them, you know the other side has received them.

For the conservationists among us, e-filing is also a sustainability measure. Over the last few years, the Illinois Supreme Court has been working on making several commonly used pleadings available to the public in fillable PDF forms, which are ideal for an e-filing setting. Many documents can be prepared 100% electronically, be e-filed and provided to the opposing side, and be saved on a server or cloud system.

However, e-filing has some drawbacks, and a few kinks that need fixing. E-filing can be limiting for the indigent or those who are not tech-savvy. You must have a computer, an e-mail address you can access regularly, and a scanner or knowledge about PDF conversion. Even the “free” statewide vendor charges 25 cents as a convenience charge for each filing (fee waivers continue to be available for those who qualify), and offers no significant technical support to users.

Everyone must be careful to learn the unique rules and restrictions applicable to the e-filing process for each circuit court. For example, there are some categories of cases that still have to be filed in person at the courthouse.  These vary from circuit to circuit. In Champaign County, adoptions, probate/guardianship matters, and evictions must be filed in person.

Because the Illinois Supreme Court wants e-filing to create uniformity in pleadings, there are digital file size limits, required fonts and formatting, and a slew of other details to take into account.  

And of course, no matter your level of sophistication, technology fails sometimes, and you have to allow yourself time to start over if something goes wrong.

Even though dramatic change brings growing pains, the practice of law should embrace the electronic age. E-filing is not only mandatory, but necessary. It increases the efficiency of our law practice; evens the playing field for self-represented litigants; and saves time, money and paper.

But remember, it is a complex system, and is not intended to serve as a DIY toolkit. If you have a legal issue, don’t jump in and try to fix it yourself. Find a local attorney with experience in the area of your need, and who is already familiar with the court requirements.  

Emma Dorantes is a partner at Dodd & Maatuka Law Offices in Champaign. She can be reached at 217-356-9500.