Mess Media




Can bike courier services survive court's shift to e-filing?

By Jennifer Sullivan

Seattle Times, November 5, 2008

Next year, when the King County Superior Court system becomes the first in the state to require that nearly all legal paperwork be filed electronically, it is expected to save the county at least $200,000 annually and spare the jobs of a handful of courthouse employees.

But the move also could have a profound impact on Seattle's bicycle-messenger companies, which rely heavily on court paperwork for their pickups and deliveries. The owner of one legal — support-services company predicts it could signal "the death for all (bicycle) messengers."

Starting June 1, all documents filed in Superior Court by lawyers and law firms will have to be filed online. The only exceptions will be documents filed by people who are acting as their own attorney, wills, aggravated-murder cases and paperwork from other courts.

Superior Court Clerk Barbara Miner estimates this move will impact the bulk of the nearly 8,000 documents filed daily in the courthouses in Seattle and Kent, as well as in juvenile court. Miner said the county has long planned to gradually switch to electronic filing, but recent county budget troubles prompted court officials to rush the procedure into place.

She said the clerk's office has to cut $3 million from its budget next year.

Kuno Hollriegel, audit program manager for King County Superior Court, said he has taught more than 500 people — mostly lawyers and law-firm employees — how to e-file court documents. He said that people have had the option of filing documents electronically since 2004, but currently only about 2 percent of courthouse customers do.

Both the state Attorney General's Office and the state Office of the Courts say they support electronic filing. Janelle Guthrie, spokeswoman for Attorney General Rob McKenna, said it will "reduce the likelihood of potential filings getting lost in transit.

"It is the wave of the future," Guthrie said. "The federal court system has largely adopted electronic filing. It's convenient, less expensive and it provides good documentation."

Wendy Ferrell, spokeswoman for the state Office of the Courts, said that she doesn't see other counties following too soon because of the cost of implementing technology.

She's certain that other counties, as well as other states, will be watching how the process goes in King County before launching a similar program.

"King County is really on the forefront of this nationally," Ferrell said. "It's difficult to get the technology up to date for a lot of jurisdictions."

Four years ago, the federal court system started transitioning to electronic filing. According to the administrative office of the U.S. Courts system, electronic filing is used in nearly all federal courthouses, federal district and bankruptcy courts, as well as the federal appellate courts.

"It's a very efficient way to handle things. It provides for a cheaper way to file cases," said Chief U.S. District Judge Robert Lasnik. "You cut out most of the messenger services and the hassle of printing huge amounts of paper."

Miner said the county is adding computer-storage space and improving on its current electronic-filing technology early next year to meet the June 1 implementation.

The move by King County has several messenger companies in Seattle worried.

Ron Belec, who owns North West Legal Support in Seattle, said that many bike couriers lost their jobs when the federal courts system shifted to electronic filing. He predicts many of the remaining 100 to 150 bike messengers will also be out of work when King County makes the transition.

"That will be the death for all messengers," said Belec. "If they do it like they did it in the federal system, the messenger system will just go away."

Tom Bice, owner of Washington Legal Messengers in Seattle, said his company will survive by delivering real-estate contracts and correspondence between law firms and their clients.

"Part of me is skeptical they will be able to make it work. But we'll roll with the punches. There's always other work in the legal industry," said Bice, who employs four bike messengers.

At ABC Legal Services in Seattle, which runs the largest legal-document bike-courier service in Seattle, the company is bracing for some elimination of positions.

"I don't know if it's an end of an era, but our bike-messenger crew is smaller than it used to be. It's a trend that's going to continue," said CEO Steve Carrigan.

Carrigan said that as more lawyers have grown comfortable with sending documents electronically, the need for bike messengers has dipped. While the company employs 17 legal-document bike messengers, the revenue they generate accounts for only about 5 percent of ABC's revenue, Carrigan said.

"It's not a profitable business. The hard part is what people charge for a downtown pickup and delivery in downtown is $10. In L.A., people pay $15 to $20 for the same thing," Carrigan said.

Robin Mullins, who stepped down last month as president of the state Process Servers Association, agrees that King County's move will decrease the number of legal-document couriers on bikes but is hopeful that electronic filing will make the bike-messenger service more profitable.

Mullins said that King County has long been saturated with bike messengers zipping in and out of its courthouses, their numbers keeping the price of delivery services lower than in other cities. With fewer messengers on bikes, companies will be able to raise their prices, he said.

"I don't think it will kill the bike-messenger system completely, but it will change it, specialize it," Mullins said. "My vision is that more people can charge (more) for services. For those who are still in it, doing that reduced amount of work will be able to make more on an hourly basis."