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The nation's largest unified court system offers the option of electronic filing in most civil cases.
Lawyers practicing in the Circuit Court of Cook County will soon be able to file papers in all civil cases except for probate matters and condemnation cases from the comfort of their own computer terminals.
In May 2009, after approval from the Administrative Office of the Illinois Courts (AOIC), Cook County Circuit Clerk Dorothy Brown launched an e-filing pilot project in the Individual Commercial Calendar Section of the Law Division. In October 2010, AOIC approved expanding the system. Now, the clerk is preparing to extend e-filing to all civil case types except for probate matters and condemnation cases.
No lines, trips to the sheriff’s office
At a seminar in April, Brown and her employees demonstrated the system for state and county bar association representatives. Cook County's system is based on the same technology used by the federal courts, associate clerk Dawn Porter said. "Ultimately, all civil cases will be included."
All users must register before electronically filing any cases or documents. To register, lawyers will need a Cook County Attorney Code, an Illinois ARDC number, and a valid e-mail address, which will be used for all confirmations. Executive clerk John K. Chatz noted that a general order of the chief judge requires lawyers to maintain an original paper copy of all filings.
The April demonstration showed that e-filing will tighten and streamline a number of filing procedures. Beyond the obvious convenience of attorneys no longer having to walk to the courthouse and stand in line, pay courier services, or shuttle to the appropriate courthouse from outlying offices, lawyers will also no longer have to make a trip to the sheriff's office.
Instead, the system will enable lawyers to select whether they are using the sheriff or a private process server and will create the civil action cover sheet and summons. "If you're using the sheriff, the clerk will print the proper number of copies and deliver them to the sheriff for an additional fee," Chatz said.
The e-filing system will eliminate confusion over missing pages and attachments, for it will filestamp every page uploaded with the date and time filed and case and page number, Chatz said.
What if you upload something by mistake, or suddenly think of a change you need to make, and realize it right after you've clicked the "upload" button? Chatz said a screen will allow a lawyer or party to review the filing before it's final and revise or delete it if necessary.
Same technology, different rules than federal court
The system has additional convenient features for frequent filers, including lawyers and firms who represent the same entity in many matters. For example, "You can type in a billing reference and designate which account the fees are to be paid from," Chatz said.
Chatz said that in developing the e-filing receipt system, "We've tried to duplicate what happens over the counter," except for the time spent waiting. The e-receipt duplicates the conventional receipt, he said, and will bear a trace number, which is the number you need if you call the clerk's help desk at 312 / 603-4357.
When you e-file an item, "You should get an e-mail immediately. You will also get an e-receipt that you can save to your system and print if you want." The system will show your filing as "pending" until live personnel of the clerk's office have accepted it.
Though the technology may be the same, the filing rules will differ from the federal courts, Porter and other representatives said. Parties will be able to file papers on line at any hour, day or night. Unlike the federal courts, however, anything filed after the close of business, 4:30 p.m., will be deemed filed on the following business day. "If e-filing becomes mandatory," said Chatz, "then we can go to a 24/7 submission of cases."
Parties will also be able to spindle motions online for all cases subject to e-filing as they now can for commercial litigation cases, though only during regular business hours, from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. The system will provide parties with three alternate dates for their motions. Upon selecting a date, the system will prepare the notice of motion, which the user may then choose to print.
"If both parties are registered e-filers and have chosen e-notices, they will get them by e-mail," Chatz said. "If someone has filed an appearance and isn't registered for e-filing, the system will tell you whether anyone needs conventional copies." Chatz and others also expressed the hope that judges will eventually accept courtesy copies online and be able to rule electronically, which, he said, might eliminate some contested hearings.
Convenience won’t be free
Chatz said the office expected the e-filing expansion to go live in May, after getting final approval from the chief judge and the AOIC.
The clerk's website has recorded several e-filing tutorials for both attorneys and unrepresented litigants, available by visiting http://services.cookcountyclerkofcourt.org/webinar. The same page provides a link to download a user's manual for e-filing in .pdf format.
Brown says the expansion will lower costs in the long run, ensure that documents are always available immediately, and make her office more green. "All documents will be imaged, so there will be no more problems with missing documents from court files. You won't see any more continuances because the court file isn't there, because the clerk can just print one."
Though Brown maintains that expanding e-filing comes at no cost to taxpayers, its convenience won't be free. The clerk will assess a $4.95 e-system usage fee, a $1 e-payment fee, and four percent of the total filing fee for each suit and motion.