The Future of CMECF Less Is More
In 2001, the federal judiciary began implementing the Case Management/ Electronic Case Filing (CM/ECF) system in the bankruptcy courts. CM/ECF offers many improvements to both bankruptcy courts and the bar, including electronic filing and access to court documents 24 hours a day. According to the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, more than 100,000 attorneys and others have filed documents using CM/ECF since the initial rollout. While this is a tremendous success, the next generation of CM/ECF may well prove that less is more as the future of CM/ECF will mean less data input screens, fewer filing errors and less staff time and resources required to transmit more data for many electronic filers.
There are several reasons for this optimistic view. First, the promise of the eXtensible Markup Language (XML) format is slowly becoming a reality within CM/ ECF. This common data format allows documents to be created and exchanged between electronic systems that were incompatible in the past. The advancement of XML and enhancements to the CM/ECF software will allow many filers to transmit and receive case data more easily. Second, individual courts have taken the lead in researching and developing enhancements to the CM/ECF system. As we will see, they have actively partnered with electronic filers to make the system easier to use and less labor-intensive.
Early on, some bankruptcy courts and high-volume filers began developing more streamlined ways of transmitting case data to CM/ECF. Many petition preparation programs now include a case upload feature that directly imports new case information, attaches the PDF images and uploads creditor information directly into CM/ECF without having to navigate through the multiple input screens. The Southern District of California recognized the potential of case uploading and developed an interface to handle the incoming files. This enhancement proved so beneficial to electronic filers and the courts that it was included in a subsequent national release of CM/ECF. While it certainly provided a shortcut to the numerous data input screens required to open a new case, the case-upload method represented only the first wave of electronic data interchange.
Bankruptcy courts also collaborated with chapter 13 trustees who consume large volumes of information captured by the courts to develop interface specifications for downloads of new case and transaction information. Software vendors such as EPIQ and Bankruptcy Software Specialists (BSS) have written add-on programs to their trustee applications to accept the download files and automatically load information into their database. This eliminates re-keying and results in faster access to more accurate information. The use of such interfaces is rapidly expanding: Courts freely share the software to extract the data, and panel trustees freely share their knowledge and experience with each other.
The long-term benefits of electronic data interchange are not only for chapter 13 trustees. Other filers...may find value in transmitting data to CM/ECF using the ADI applications.
For example, in April 2002, the Western District of Texas implemented a trustee data-extraction application. This application provides chapter 7 and chapter 13 trustees with detailed information about new cases as well as descriptive information and PDF images of all documents filed in any cases assigned to them. Panel trustees are able to automatically upload new case information into their databases with the click of a mouse. This type of collaborative development is not new, but the tools to accomplish this task have become more sophisticated with the development of CM/ECF.
The most recent of these tools is the Automatic Docketing Interface (ADI) module, which was included in the latest version of CM/ECF. ADI provides the means for courts to accept transactions in high volumes from users such as panel trustees and high-volume creditors. The court and electronic filer must collaborate in order to use this capability. The court tells the user what transactions are allowed and the XML formats they must be in. The user develops the software to create these transactions. Once the formats and protocols have been designed, a large volume of data can then be exported from one system and automatically imported into CM/ECF.
The Western District of Texas is developing a trustee interface using the ADI module, which will allow chapter 13 trustees to automate batch filings. Until the most recent version of CM/ECF, panel trustee batch filings provided only limited savings in time and staff resources. Now, with the ADI module, real efficiencies can be gained. Here's how ADI can work: The trustee uses a third-party software product running on his or her system to automatically create a data file in XML format that contains the information needed to complete the docketing of the CM/ECF docket entry. One XML file is required for each docketing transaction. The trustee then creates a batch of these data files that are then "zipped" (compressed) into a single file. This file is submitted to the court, and then processed by the CM/ECF server. Each data file is checked to ensure that the CM/ECF docket transaction is allowed and all of the data elements required to docket a specific docket event are present. If the submission is accurate, a docket entry is automatically created.
Both the end user and the court benefit from using the ADI interface. In the Texas example, the trustee interface application will significantly reduce the amount of time and the number of errors associated with trustee docketing. It will also indirectly benefit other users since this high volume of docket transactions will be processed at off-peak hours, thereby allowing CM/ECF to operate faster during normal business hours. In addition, because the format and content of the transactions to be processed can be automatically checked for accuracy and completeness, the quality of transactions are significantly improved.
The long-term benefits of electronic data interchange are not only for chapter 13 trustees. Other filers, such as high-volume creditors and debtor practitioners, may find value in transmitting data to CM/ECF using the ADI applications. The key to unlocking these benefits is an ongoing partnership between the bankruptcy courts, software vendors and practitioners. Working together, courts and electronic filers can enhance and extend ADI applications so that data is exchanged more efficiently and with fewer errors. This will result in more accurate court dockets and with less time and resources required for all involved.