Funding eFiling: Calculating the Cost

This is the conclusion of Part 3 of 10 in the eFiling Blog Series. Check out the first half of Part 3 here.

fundingefiling2Handling of indigents in an eFiling system will be profoundly affected by the chosen funding model. In a fully court-funded model with no user-based fees, it’s simple: indigents can be handled the same as any other filers. However, any model deriving funding from user fees or service charges, both policy and procedural considerations are highly significant. On the policy side, there are access to justice considerations. Any model basing fees on total cost divided by number of filings must, in order to avoid major underestimation of real revenue, fully account for the portion of eFiling attributable to indigents.

A number of courts have made the mistake of calculating costs based on number of filings, only to later realize that filings by indigents comprise a large portion of the totals; and those must be “carried” by the rest. Then, the system must be able to identify and appropriately process those who are exempt from fee payments (which may occur in many places during the filing process; not simply where “filing fees” are typically collected).

In any event, any system that is collecting fees from filers (whether eFiling fees, or other statutory fees) should have a mechanism to handle indigents. The most common mechanism is to allow the user to file an “application for waiver” document which the court can approve on a case by case basis and thereafter the user can file to that case without cost.

A major consideration with Pro Se litigants, particularly in a “mandatory” eFiling system, is making the system easy to use for those who have never used it before. Consider: in the paper world, one could mail a document to the court. Courts didn’t have to help people figure out how to use the postal service. With eFiling, people are in a completely new and unfamiliar world. Will the interfaces be simple enough; and how much will the support (including real-time, “live” personnel) cost? A related topic is the “morphing of what used to be court law libraries into staffed media centers which, among other things, can support pro-se litigants.

Again, aside from a fully court-funded model, a seminal question is “What ARE other government agencies?” Clearly prosecutors, but how about indigent defense providers? Executive agencies? Private contractors on government contract? And so on. Then, how and how much should each various class pay?  And to whom? In the paper world, the court never bore the cost of postage for incoming filings; does this imply the court should have no responsibility for the cost to submit a document to a private filing portal? Politically, the court’s partners will undoubtedly notice the cost if they are required to bear it, even if the actual “filing convenience fee” is waived. Models could include, for example, a “purpose-built” EFSP for use by partner agencies to streamline the filing process.

Refer back to Rule 1. eFiling is NOT free. For example, because we are not used to thinking of credit card processing fees as an additional “cost” when we shop, we forget that the merchant has to “eat” those costs. With eFiling, the court is the merchant.

Up front and on-going user support can be easily overlooked or, worse, vastly underestimated. Pro-se litigants (not to mention out of town attorneys, occasional users, and so on) will need support; and a court underestimates the amount and cost at its peril.

Depending on the implementation and strategy, there are any number of cost and expenses that are not obvious. Absent rigorous due diligence, many of the costs may be overlooked until too late.

Two key points to remember about filer payment systems, be they credit card, escrow accounts, billings, or other system: 1) Every payment collection system has a cost; and 2) Someone is going to pay that cost. A related point is that avoidance by the court of the costs (say, for example, by arranging for “face amount” payment by a credit card processor) may very well result in substantially higher costs to the filer than if the court simply figured the credit card processing fee into the amount it sets as the charge.

eFiling entails costs for both implementation and ongoing operation. Some costs are direct and obvious; others are indirect and/or not easy to spot. A number of different strategies exist for funding these costs. Determination of both the nature of the costs and the funding model, as well as the nature and type of ongoing responsibilities the court and its partners must assume requires rigorous due diligence to develop and execute a solid, cost-effective, sufficiently funded eFiling system.

The good news is that an experienced eFiling vendor can help identify analyze the court’s situation, the available opportunities, the true costs, and the realistic choices, enabling the court to build its eFiling solution using a solid financial model.

Coming up next: Blog 4  of 10: eFiling Blog Series – CMS Integration

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