Since the 2017 Illinois Supreme Court mandated electronic court filing in civil cases, the vision of “statewide online remote access system” is well on its way.
And while these changes certainly add a level of convenience for lawyers, litigants, and courtside employees, many were left wondering how the new system could protect unwanted access to confidential documents and information. Others wondered whether confidential information could even be filed electronically in the first place.
Here are some answers to these critical questions.
eFiling confidential documents
The protection of confidential documents and information must initially be safeguarded by the litigants themselves. Indeed, the state Supreme Court noted as much in its Electronic Filing Procedures and User Manual (the “User Manual”). It states that “Confidential, impounded or otherwise secured documents (‘secured’) shall be submitted only when clearly designated as such at the time of filing.”
Note, however, that a party may only make this designation if it has also filed a motion for leave to file a secured document. Secured documents have to be submitted along with that motion, “but in a separate transaction than the transaction containing the motion.” (User Manual, par. 3.b.) This dual filing procedure allows the court to keep secured documents completely separate from filings that will be made public.
Importantly, the User Manual seems to recognize that not all parties will want to submit secured documents or the accompanying motion electronically. While it permits parties to do so, it does not mandate the electronic filing procedure for this delicate process. (See User Manual, par. 3.b.)
Confidential eFiled documents cannot be seen by the public
The Illinois Supreme Court has been extremely cautious in implementing a system that allows for eFiling of secured documents, but also allows for public access to court records. In an Order dated May 30, 2017, the court explained how its public search feature – re:SearchIL – would dovetail with the state’s prescribed electronic filing system (eFileIL).
According to the court’s plan, the re:SearchIL application would initially be available only to judges, clerks, court officials and parties. Going forward, as all state courts transitioned to eFileIL and case documents became more widely available, all eFiled documents would be automatically copied from eFileIL to re:SearchIL.
Knowing this, the Supreme Court tasked court clerks with the responsibility “to identify and mark the confidential documents in re:SearchIL and in their local case management system.” As integration of these electronic systems continues, clerks will eventually be able to manage secured documents completely within their own system. From there, re:SearchIL will automatically detect secured documents and prevent them from being accessed by the public.
Remember to remove personal information and metadata
It is important to keep in mind that the court’s procedures for eFiling “secured” documents are separate from a litigant’s duty to remove personal information and metadata from other court filings. Parties have a great interest in keeping things like social security numbers, the names of minor litigants, or bank account information private. Fortunately, they can do so using relatively simple in-office procedures.
Read more: How to remove metadata
Even though sensitive text can be easily removed from a Word document, the best practice is to avoid filing or sending anything in a Word (.doc) file. Without employing proper safeguards, those files can be mined for all sorts of sensitive information.
Nonetheless, there are times when the exchange of Word documents is necessary (when a joint motion is being prepared by opposing attorneys, for example). In those instances, it is wise to scrub a document of all its metadata before it leaves your computer.
Metadata can be thought of as the hidden history of your document. It is data about all the changes you’ve made throughout the drafting process. Although most metadata is harmless, unscrupulous characters might be tempted to scour a document’s metadata for things like deleted bank account numbers. This becomes particularly troublesome if Word documents are eFiled and made accessible to the public.
Read more: How to redact using Adobe Acrobat
The best practice? eFile documents in PDF format that have already been redacted and had the metadata removed.
For more about keeping information secure, check out Top tips for handling confidential documents at your firm.
Have questions about eFiling confidential or other sensitive information? Feel free to contact OneLegal’s Illinois court filing experts.