trickle-down econmics

A lot of attention gets (quite properly) focused on “Access to Justice”, and the various barriers – physical, social, economic, cultural, and so on – that inhibit people’s ability to appropriately use the justice system. Of these, one major barrier has always been cost—particularly, the cost of quality legal representation.

“Everyone knows” that e-filing can save courts a lot of money (well, maybe not everyone ; but the business case has been pretty clearly proven); and that’s a real incentive to the taxpayers.

Likewise, it’s no mystery that most attorneys avidly support implementation of e-filing, for their own valid business reasons. Indeed, the legal community generally is willing to pay for e-filing in the form of surcharges and/or nominally higher filing fees, because the convenience is so much greater and the total expense of delivery of documents to the court and service on parties is so much less.

But beyond the potential benefits to taxpayers and the self-interest of the private bar, another vast, often unmentioned constituency that stands to gain more perhaps than any other: Attorney-represented court users. E-filing has the potential to greatly reduce the cost of legal representation, thereby dramatically lowering one of the classically high barriers to Access to Justice.

Having been engaged for a number of years in the private practice of law myself, and, currently, married to a hard-working Legal Assistant in a busy law firm, I have some first-hand knowledge of why legal representation is expensive while at the same time (contrary to what most people think) not all that many attorneys are getting rich providing it.

My wife’s firm handles cases in the state and federal courts. I, as a loyal spouse, dutifully listen as she unwinds every day. Interestingly, several years ago, her complaints about filing problems largely concerned her frustration with having to master the [then] “new” process of e-filing with the federal court. Nowadays, her frustration is more about the fact that the state courts have not yet implemented e-filing, and the hassle, interruption, cost, and unreliability engendered because of the need for physically filing documents with them.

Now, I know how much my wife makes; and, given her knowledge and experience, she does not come cheap. I also know that she has more to do in a day than she can ever get done. As a result, every minute she spends working on things like making sure documents get filed is one less minute she has available to spend on fee-generating activities that require her specialized experience and knowledge. All that time that she and the others in her office devote to filing gets charged, of course, to the office’s clients.

There are a myriad of other ways in which e-filing improves Access to Justice. For low-income pro se litigants, for whom filing fees have typically been waived, e-filing systems tend to be “progressive”, in that they allow low income filers and their representatives to file for free. Other improvements include the potential ability to remotely access court documents, thereby eliminating the need to travel, park, etc.; the use of smart forms attached to workflow to improve data entry speed and accuracy (particularly for pro-se filings); the ability to use a local attorney for dealings with remote courts; and so on. But the direct reduction to clients in the cost of legal services as the result of e-filing is both one of the largest and one of the least-often cited benefits to the users of the justice system.

In any discussion of “Access to Justice”, the beneficial impact of e-filing, including potential reduction in cost to those seeking access to the justice system, should be prominently featured.

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