Federal, state and local court e-filing systems are a Tower of Babel-like mishmash of proprietary technologies and paywalls that inhibit public access to court documents.

Now, the Free Law Project, a nonprofit devoted to making legal information publicly and freely available, has received a grant to design and prototype an open access and open source court e-filing system, aiming to disrupt the existing system by which e-filing and court management systems make money by selling access to court records.

“This impacts the court itself and all who interact with it by blocking a full understanding of the court,” wrote Michael Lissner, FLP’s executive director, in announcing the initiative this week. “It is particularly harmful to those that cannot afford to pay for court records.”

It kicked off the project this week with a search to hire a researcher to do the initial legwork and a call for courts interested in partnering.

FLP has received a grant from the Bia-Echo Foundation, an organization that invests in “changemakers at the forefront of innovation” in areas including justice reform, to partner with courts to design and prototype the first open access and open source e-filing system.

“We know this will be a complex task and we don’t expect to have a solution in the first year,” Lissner wrote. “However, we do think we can make significant progress on this important problem and that it’s past time to get started.”

To get the project started, FLP is hiring a user researcher to study the complexities of this project and detail the findings. (Here is the job posting.)

According to the posting, the researcher will spend the next year developing partnerships with courts and the public and working to understand their needs, and publish their findings as a series of blog posts or formal reference papers.

Lissner said he is also looking for courts with which to partner on this project. Interest courts should contact FLP’s director of philanthropy, Jenifer Whiston, at jenifer@free.law.

The ultimate goal is to develop a system that allows full and free public access to filing and retrieval of court documents, including through APIs and bulk access, Lissner said, and that can allow for standardization across court systems.


Photo of Bob Ambrogi Bob Ambrogi

Bob is a lawyer, veteran legal journalist, and award-winning blogger and podcaster. In 2011, he was named to the inaugural Fastcase 50, honoring “the law’s smartest, most courageous innovators, techies, visionaries and leaders.” Earlier in his career, he was editor-in-chief of several legal publications, including The National Law Journal, and editorial director of ALM’s Litigation Services Division.