The Clerk's Office: An Underutilized Resource
The Clerk's Offices of U.S. Bankruptcy Courts offer the bankruptcy community a plethora of services that often are underutilized and may be unknown to many constituencies. Many clerk's offices have adopted a customer-service approach in organizational design and business processes. The purpose of this article is to inform members of the bankruptcy community of the many services available to them from their bankruptcy clerk's offices.
Although electronic public access services have been available to the public for more than a decade, the utilization of these services is nowhere near the capacity of the systems. General information about pending bankruptcy cases is available by telephone 24 hours a day, seven days a week, via the Voice Case Information System (VCIS). Most courts have toll-free numbers users can use to access VCIS, making this a totally free service. Clerks' offices also provide free on-site access to all court electronic records, with copies available at $.10 per page. Court web sites are another source of free information just a mouse click away, offering such items as local rules, filing procedures, court calendars, employment opportunities and directions to the court. For a nominal fee, you may also remotely access court electronic records via the Internet through the Public Access to Electronic Records system (PACER). By the end of 2004, most courts will have actual case documents available via the Internet through PACER. In the very near future, you will have Internet access to almost all clerk's office services 24 hours a day, seven days a week—including holidays!
Suppose you suspect a person or business has filed a bankruptcy petition, but you do not know where it was filed. Today, you can access U.S. Courts' U.S. Party Case Index, a PACER service, to locate the district where a case was filed. All but nine bankruptcy courts participate in this program. For more information about PACER services, visit the PACER web site at http://www.pacer.psc.uscourts.gov, or call your local clerk's office.
After-hours Filing Without ECF
What happens when a party cannot file electronically, and it is after normal business hours? Bankruptcy Rule 5001(a) provides that the court is always open for the purpose of filing any pleading. Courts have procedures to address this situation, which are usually published on a court's web site or can be obtained by calling the clerk's office. Many courts have after-hours drop-off boxes with date stamping machines to record the date and time of the filing. Some courts only allow the use of this option if the electronic filing capability is certified as not being available. Some courts require that a disk be provided with a hard copy pleading for uploading to the system, while other courts require a document to be e-filed later when the system is available, along with a request that the date be adjusted back to the date of the file stamp. If possible, prearranging for this type of filing is strongly recommended. If all else fails, most courts will have an after-hours number to call for emergencies. The message or call will be relayed to appropriate court personnel who will be able to assist in this situation.
Credit Cards and E-commerce
Many in the bankruptcy community find it ironic, given the nature of our business, that most bankruptcy clerks' offices now accept all major credit cards for paying filing and other miscellaneous fees. Of course, this service is not available to debtors. No longer do you have to make sure you have a check or exact change to pay for court services when you visit the clerk's office. In fact, with credit cards, you can transact your business over the telephone in many courts and will soon be able to do the same online. Indeed, you need to be careful not to exceed your credit limit. The next version of the U.S. Courts' CM/ECF System is due out next year and will allow for the payment of filing fees online.
Retrieving Archived Cases
As you can see, accessing court records and transacting business for pending matters is quick and easy in today's clerk's office. But what about accessing closed cases, the paper variety, that have been archived and sent to the various Federal Records Centers (FRCs) throughout the country? Most clerks' offices keep the most recent two years of closed cases on-site. After two years, cases are shipped to regional federal records storage sites. Except for cases of historic significance, most case files are destroyed after 20 years. The quickest way to access an archived case is to obtain the FRC's accession number for the case file and the FRC telephone number from the clerk's office, and contact the FRC directly for copies of the case. You may also view the case on site at the FRC. The only alternative is to request the clerk's office to retrieve the case from the FRC, which takes six to eight weeks, at a cost of $35. You may request copies for an additional fee of $.50 per page. Electronic files will improve this process considerably, but for now, the best way to access archived case files is through the FRC.
Chapter 11 Clerk Procedures: Small/Medium/Large/Mega (Advantages of Clerk's Office Input)
Most clerks' offices prefer to receive, and some require, a "heads-up" when a chapter 11 is going to be filed. This gives the debtor's attorney the opportunity to discuss any special or anticipated needs that the case may have. The name of the case does not have to be disclosed. Some courts have local rules or clerk's office guidelines to deal with the filing of chapter 11s, which are published on the courts' web sites. In the larger chapter 11s, items such as the timing of the filing, noticing, scheduling of hearings, use of claims agents, contact numbers for information, special security concerns and possible crowd control and media issues can be addressed to allow the case to get off to a smooth start.
Employment with the Court
There are a number of web sites in addition to the court's own web site that publish information on the availability of positions with the courts. These include http://www.uscourts.gov, http://www.abiworld.org, http://www.ncbj.org and http://www.ncbcimpact.org. These web sites will probably have direct links to the courts that have the positions. Some courts provide for the filing of applications online for positions that are advertised.
Education and Training Resources for the Bar
A number of courts, through their clerks' offices, have set up liaison committees with the bar to meet periodically to discuss service issues. In addition, with the advent of electronic case filing, the clerks' offices have established training sessions for the bar members and their staffs that may, in some circumstances, be held at the law firm's location. These training sessions also have been used to launch new local rules and/or procedures of the court and have been used to orient new practitioners. Court personnel have made themselves available to speak at bar and other professional organization meetings on a variety of topics of interest to these organizations. Specifically, in connection with electronic case filing, courts have included a link to online training opportunities for the use of the system. A growing number of courts publish electronic newsletters on their web sites that provide news on the latest developments in the court. Some courts provide "help lines" that the bar and public can contact for general procedural and "how to" or problem-resolving questions. Some courts have initiated the process to allow bar members to e-mail clerks of court or other key staff members concerning critical issues, problems or questions. More and more courts have initiated community outreach programs to better inform the public and the bar about bankruptcy resources and information that are available.
Video Conferencing Hearings and Trials/Courtroom Technology
Courtroom technology has progressed to the point that not only is high-quality telephone conferencing available, but video conferencing also is available if the court deems it necessary. This service can usually be provided by the court with a stationary or mobile unit or by a third-party vendor to be paid for by the parties. Through electronic recording of hearings, a tape or CD can be provided within a short period of time as required by parties. Access to the court's database is provided in just about all of the courts to court personnel and in some instances to the bar for reference purposes. PC projectors can usually be provided for presentation purposes or accommodated with advance notice. Bar members are encouraged to contact the court for any special technological needs, and most courts will be able to service those needs or work with counsel to see that they are serviced.
The majority of bankruptcy courts use electronic court reporting (ECR) systems to record court proceedings, although some still use contract court reporters. Most court sessions are recorded through analog recording systems, but a growing number of clerks' offices are using the more advanced digital technology to keep the record. To request an official transcript, parties need to contract a clerk's office for local procedures. Courts using ECR systems will have a list of transcription services that specialize in ECR technology. Contract court reporters have exclusive rights to produce transcripts for non-ECR courts. Maximum transcription rates are set by the U.S. Judicial Conference and are available from your clerk's office.
But what if you just need to hear a recording of testimony or would just like to get a copy of the recording of the court session? For a nominal fee, you can order a tape or CD of any court proceeding. You may also make arrangements with your local clerk's office to listen to a tape on-site free of charge. Courts that use contract court reporters often record court sessions and will make those tapes available to the public. Digital electronic court reporting will greatly enhance court services in this area. Digital files can be e-mailed to requesting parties or offered on the Internet through streaming audio files. Digital recordings may also be made available to the public through the public access terminals in the clerk's office.
For more information about clerk's office services, visit your local court's web site. A complete listing of court web sites is available at http://www.uscourts.gov.