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April 2012

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This article is in the news archives --- for current news go to the Third Branch News.


Task Force Elicits User Views on "Next Gen" CM/ECF

A two-year effort to gather user input on the design of the Judiciary’s Next Generation Case Management/Electronic Case Files system has produced a number of suggested improvements—many of which have been integrated into the design requirements.

Since 2009, Bankruptcy Judge J. Rich Leonard has chaired a task force, the Additional Functional Requirements Group (ASFRG), to gather the views of non-Judiciary users on the design of the Next Gen CM/ECF. Leonard had been involved in developing an earlier version of the CM/ECF system. His group’s final report is available online at www.uscourts.gov/ASFRG_Report. Nearly 500 of the ASFRG’s recommendations already have been adopted and incorporated into the functional requirements documents, which will be used to design the “Next Gen” CM/ECF.

ASFRG was composed of judges and clerks of court, as well as liaisons from advisory and working groups, and non-Judiciary representatives from the Department of Justice, the Internal Revenue Service, the Association of American Law Schools, the American Bar Association, and the National Association of Bankruptcy Trustees.

ASFRG members talked with thousands of CM/ECF users, formally and informally, from conferences to small face-to-face group meetings. Leonard termed the exchanges “vigorous.”

“Our current electronic filing and access systems are so successful that they have been integrated into the business practices of both the bar and other federal court users to an astonishingly sophisticated degree,” said Leonard. “Our partners have a great deal of practical experience. . . and a huge stake in where we go next. They were eager to tell us their views.”

A broad array of stakeholders insured a fair and representative cross-section of users’ opinions. Among the canvassed stakeholder groups were attorneys involved in Social Security, appellate, civil and criminal, immigration, and bankruptcy litigation, probation and pretrial officers, prisoners, court reporters, pro se debtors, legal document preparers and mediators, as well as representatives from JAG, Legal Aid, the SEC, FTC, and the IRS. A member of the task force was assigned to each of 63 identified constituent groups, a communications plan unique to each group was developed, and their recommendations sought.

“What we heard was both reassuring and helpful,” said Leonard. “All groups reported a high level of satisfaction with our current systems, and a desire that our next version not lose any current functionality,” he said. “’Whatever you do, don’t break it,’ was a common refrain.”

The groups were remarkably consistent in their views on the components of any new system. Many of the core findings relate to the difficulty of finding and extracting data in the current systems. The core findings also reflect the advancement of technology in the years since the original CM/ECF was introduced and the evolution of national and industry standards for data exchanges.

“From the perspective of our outside users,” said Leonard, “the greatest challenge for our next system is to achieve a higher level of consistency among courts. The challenge there is to balance this legitimate requirement with the creativity of individual courts and judges to receive and manipulate information in a way that allows them, in their discretion, to manage caseloads effectively.”

Among the core findings of the stakeholders for the"Next Gen" CM/ECF:

  • standardized user interface and filing practices across all courts.
  • a single sign-on process for seamless access to PACER and to any court CM/ECF system where a user has been admitted to file.
  • access by external users to view or file case-related information based on their role in a case.
  • expanded search capabilities for CM/ECF and PACER.
  • customizable features such as dashboards, alerts of deadlines, calendar reports that feed into local calendar software, and ad hoc query and reporting capabilities
  • a "preview" function to view the document being filed prior to submission to ensure the correct document is filed
  • elimination or increase of file size limits in a consistent manner across courts and court types.
  • allowing additional ways to batch file information to reduce the amount of data entry required.
  • allowing users to customize their electronic notices so that they can better manage of the volume of notices received and readily identify those requiring action.
  • enhanced report options to include customized reports, expanded selection criteria, and expanded formats.
  • the adoption of industry data exchange standards.