Electronic filing frustrates lawyers in valley

When the Clark County court system switched to electronic filing of documents, the new paperless system was supposed to enhance efficiency and lower costs for attorneys and people who represent themselves.

The idea behind e-filing was to streamline the process by eliminating the need to turn paper documents into electronic forms and by eliminating time-consuming indexing.

That promise hasn't panned out, according to attorneys who say the system has made their work unpredictable, more expensive, far less efficient and potentially harmful to the very people the courts are supposed to protect.

"Attorneys are furious over how long it's taking" to get court papers filed, Las Vegas divorce attorney Marshal Willick said. "We literally can't get things done."

The advantage in a court case often goes to the party who files a complaint first. That's particularly true in Family Court, where about two out of three people represent themselves.

Lacking an attorney's understanding of the system, they might not even realize their e-filings aren't getting where they need to be.

Jurisdiction also plays a big role in the outcome. If one party in a divorce lives in Nevada and the other elsewhere, the state where the complaint is filed first has jurisdiction. That includes custody of the children.

"It's a race to the courthouse," said Willick, recounting a recent case in which he filed first for his client but a processing delay allowed the out-of-state party to "beat the competing jurisdiction."

Willick and other attorneys also say documents are consistently rejected by clerks without notice to attorneys, who learn of it days and sometimes weeks later. This creates a "vast problem" when legal time lines are not met.

"It seems whenever the courts make an improvement, it's for them and not the public," Willick said.

The e-filing problems also cause headaches for judges, who must reconsider decisions after learning they had ruled based on incomplete information.

The cost of e-filing is another bone of contention for attorneys such as Willick. At $3.50 per document, Willick expects the average cost of a divorce -- already high -- will increase by at least $1,000.

To add insult to injury, Willick said, there is a fundamental unfairness in the system. Clark County lawyers pay an estimated $4,200 per year for e-filing, while Washoe County lawyers pay $100 per year.

Washoe County Court Administrator Howard Conyers said the difference is that his courts use a customized in-house system while Clark County uses the Wiznet e-filing and Odyssey case management systems, which charge vendor fees.

"I'm trying to get my mind around that $3.50 per document figure," Willick said.

"That's what we've been told is the actual cost," said District Judge Elizabeth Gonzalez, who agrees with Willick on many points.

Gonzalez, the presiding judge over Clark County's civil division, said the biggest problem for civil law attorneys is the delay in getting a file-stamped copy returned. She asks attorneys who appear in her courtroom to provide courtesy copies.

Civil cases as a rule tend to be document-heavy, and in Clark County, the 17th most populated in the nation and one of the busiest jurisdictions in America, the volume of e-filing is the highest in the country.

Gonzalez said that the problems with e-filing are being addressed and that she has faith the kinks will work out.

She also thinks the poor economy contributes mightily to the problem. Roughly 20 court clerk positions have been lost to attrition over the past year at a time when e-filings have increased 283 percent, Gonzalez said.

Just under 89,000 documents were e-filed in the fiscal year ending June 30, 2008. With e-filing now mandatory, 341,211 documents were filed in the most recent fiscal year, she said.

"I think we're doing better," Gonzalez said, noting that the $3.50 per document cost was reduced from $6 and that prices are pegged to covering the system's cost and no more.

"We didn't expect the volume," she said. "There's always a learning curve."

Gonzalez also was quick to point out the issues with delays and other problems have not been caused by Tyler Technologies, which handles the county's e-filing and case management systems.

"It's not the vendor. It's us."

That is an opinion shared by Brandi Wendel, the court division administrator for Family Court.

Wendel also agrees with Willick's assessment, and she agrees Tyler Technologies has been "very responsive."

For instance, Gonzalez said the County Commission will be asked to fund a tweak to the system that will allow e-filings to be accepted immediately and rejected later if flaws are detected.

That would help speed up the process and would prevent rejecting documents for frivolous reasons, such as a typo.

Clearly, the biggest problems are in the Family Court system, where e-filing has been mandatory longer than in the civil or criminal divisions.

For Wendel, the problem is a combination of a shrunken staff in the face of growing litigation. She said 10 to 12 deputy clerks split their time between processing e-files on computers and dealing with 300 or so daily "customers" at the counter.

She said the office is about three business days behind, on average.

"It would be nice if we could keep up in real time," she said "The same day is our goal."

Approached for comment Friday at Family Court, Maria Gomez, whose daughter is fighting her ex-husband for custody of a daughter, said the long lines to file are not the issue.

"This is the easy part," she said. "They help us a lot because we are not good at the law. It's when we go to court that she gets scared."

For attorneys such as Willick, who must zealously advocate for their clients, the current system is slower, more expensive and less efficient than the paper filing system it replaced.

"That isn't my idea of progress," he said.

While Gonzales and Wendel point out that attorneys can file for free at courthouse kiosks, Willick and other attorneys say it's hardly free when they have to pay someone to stand in e-filing kiosk lines comparable with those at the Department of Motor Vehicles.

He said the solution is to improve the system based on what the public needs, not to suit court employees.

"Get rid of the bureaucratic mindset," he said. "If they can make this system work, it will be almost as good as what we had 10 years ago."

Wendel said that's the goal.

"We work hard," Wendel said. "We understand there's frustration, and we're working on issues and the vendor has been great, but we understand there's frustration."

Contact Doug McMurdo at dmcmurdo@reviewjournal.com or 702-224-5512 or read more courts coverage at lvlegalnews.com.