The fax machine is making the wheels of justice turn a little more smoothly these days in California.
A two-year experiment approved this year by the Legislature lets lawyers file lawsuits and probate and family law documents by facsimile machine.Attorneys say it helps them beat deadlines as well as traffic in car-clogged California, where papers usually are delivered by messenger or by lawyers themselves.
"Like everybody else, we wait until the last minute and sometimes things are developing until the last minute," said Delph Wilson, a personal-injury lawyer in Los Angeles. "You're in your office pacing back and forth like a father in the maternity ward while your secretary is pounding it out and you're hoping the messenger gets there on time."
Smaller court clerks' offices around the state receive documents directly on their own fax machines.
In Los Angeles, the most clogged court system in the state with more than 10,000 documents filed daily in Los Angeles County Superior Court alone, the clerk's office is not equipped to receive a flood of fax transmissions.
Instead, Fax Court Filings Inc., a company formed by 30 attorney service firms in the area, accepts fax transmissions of documents to its office, then walks them over to the Los Angeles County Courthouse nearby.
Andrew Estin, president of Fax Court Filings Inc., said fax filings have saved attorneys from missing the statutory deadline for suing. In one case, he said, a lawyer faxed a petition for a stay of execution.
"The realities of filing documents in metropolitan areas of California are traffic and parking," he said. "It's often difficult to get a document to the court by the filing deadline."
Fax filings must meet specific requirements, including the type of paper used. Fax Court Filings Inc. receives the documents on 20 sophisticated laser printing fax machines using bond paper instead of the slippery thermal stuff. The filing of certain documents such as wills and codicils by fax is prohibited. Otherwise, signatures on faxed documents generally are acceptable.
At the end of the experiment, the Legislature will decide whether to make the program permanent.
Minnesota was the first to try fax machines in such a way, in October 1987. After a yearlong experiment, machines were ordered installed in all state courts.
Other states that have fax transmission in some courts include Colorado, Idaho, Florida, Nevada, New York, Oregon and Washington.
Tony Nevarez, former lobbyist for the California State Bar, said faxing was seen as a way to save clients and lawyers money by eliminating messengers. He said the only opposition came from process servers who feared losing business.
Frank Zolin, Los Angeles County clerk and executive officer of the Superior Court, said services such as Estin's are working well but that less than 1 percent of documents are being filed by fax.
"People are slow to adapt to change," said Zolin. "I see it as a real convenience. But it's not a revolutionary change. It's mainly a convenience to the litigants and attorneys."
In some cases, Zolin said, judges and lawyers will continue to demand original documents. But he said the fax is a boon for out-of-state firms.
Estin, whose service was launched in June, said business has been slow, but "in five years everybody's going to be doing it."