A Court Microsoft Is Glad To Spend Time In

Texas county gets free E-filing technology; Microsoft and BearingPoint keep the fees
Texas county gets free E-filing technology; Microsoft and BearingPoint keep the feesDowntown Houston is a mere 30 miles northwest of the Fort Bend County Courthouse in Richmond, Texas, but congestion along Route 59 can bring the drive time during rush hour to nearly two hours. That's left more than one lawyer stuck in traffic sweating out a late-afternoon deadline to file court documents with the Fort Bend County Court. But the county is testing an electronic filing system it hopes to deploy by summer's end that should eliminate such problems. "It's the next evolution in document processing and filing," says Fort Bend County Clerk Dianne Wilson.

The best news for the citizens of Fort Bend County is that the E-filing service won't cost them a cent to implement. Microsoft, which provides the technology, and consulting firm BearingPoint Inc., which has an outsourcing contract with the state of Texas, provide the system for no up-front cost, then collect $4 for each filing. The deal is being offered to all 254 counties through the state government portal, Texas Online.

In Fort Bend, the E-filing system will be integrated with the county's homegrown court-management system and an imaging- and document-management system from Hart InterCivic Inc. Counties without back-end management systems can print the E-filed documents.

Fort Bend Couty Courthouse, Texas. Photo courtesy of LM Otero/AP.

Fort Bend County, Texas, lawyers wont have to rush to the courthouse to file papers; theyll be able to E-file.
Though the $4 fee goes to BearingPoint and Microsoft, the Texas Legislature approved a bill to let each court impose an additional surcharge to help offset any court costs tied to the E-filings. Fort Bend will charge an extra $2 to cover the costs of computers, printers, ink, and paper for printouts judges might want (they can access them electronically if they choose). County prosecutors won't have to pay any part of the $6 fee.

More states are embracing the idea of charging a fee for doing government business online, especially when it means cash-strapped states can get an online system without paying up front for the technology. Arkansas, for example, tapped NIC Inc. to build and manage a Web portal at no cost in exchange for fees for selling through the site. Yet the trend might prove counterproductive in the long term: Although doing state transactions online is often cheaper, the fees could discourage the regular use of online services.

County Clerk Wilson says the $2 surcharge is needed to cover costs and won't discourage use. "Somebody has to pay for the system," she says. "People are used to paying convenience fees with ATMs." Gary Miglicco, managing director of BearingPoint's national E-government unit, estimates the average cost to lawyers to file paper documents is about $25 per filing, including costs such as couriers.

BearingPoint and Microsoft plan to market the E-filing for Courts system state by state and to the federal courts. The system uses the LegalXML standard schema and Web-services standards such as the Simple Object Access Protocol. That should make it easier for courts to connect the system to existing front-end and back-end technology systems and applications. Attorneys will use one standard Web interface when filing documents and making payments to multiple courts around the state.

Photo courtesy of LM Otero/AP