This is part of a series of articles on how to file papers in California’s Superior Courts. This article covers how to file documents by e-filing – which in many ways is the best way to do it, when available. In separate, related articles, I’ve covered how to file documents by physically going to the court and how to file documents by mailing them to the court.
As a self-represented litigant you probably have a choice between filing your documents with the court in the form of physical paper, or by e-filing. In other words, you can always do paper, and there is a high chance you also have the option to e-file.
In the old days, say ten years ago, law firms would send a “runner” to the courthouse with a satchel full of papers, and the runner would wait in line at the court clerk’s office. When the runner got to the front of the line, he or she would slide the papers across the counter and hand over a physical check for the filing fee. Self-represented litigants would do the same thing.
These days, attorneys in California are now subject to mandatory e-filing for most of their cases. That is because 28 of California’s 58 Superior Court systems have shifted to mandatory electronic filing for law firms, and this includes all of the higher population counties in the state, with the exception of San Bernardino. Despite mandatory e-filing for attorneys, all Superior Courts still allow self-represented people to file documents the old fashion way — physical paper — recognizing that some people don’t have convenient Internet access.
In courts where e-filing is available, it is not limited to attorneys; self-represented litigants can use it too. You can check whether e-filing is available in your county by checking the listings on this page.
Read on, to learn how to e-file your documents.
a. Check Your Court’s Website for E-Filing Information
There are 58 counties in California and each county has its own Superior Court. For example Los Angeles Superior Court or Santa Clara Superior Court. Naturally, the rules and procedures are similar at the various Superior Courts. However, there are also some significant differences. One area where the differences can manifest themselves is in connection with whether and how they implement e-filing.
The Superior Court for each county has its own separate website, and you can usually ascertain the e-filing policy for your court by exploring that court’s website. All of the Superior Court websites are linked from this page, maintained by the Judicial Branch of California. Once you navigate to the website for your particular Superior Court you may need to explore a bit to uncover the local policies and procedures concerning e-filing.
The two pieces of information you are looking for are whether e-filing is permitted and, if so whether the court implements e-filing by requiring you to sign up with an outside vendor, i.e., a private for-profit company (this is the most common method), or whether the court has its own e-filing system.
If your court requires the use of an outside vendor for e-filing, the website will normally provide a list of approved vendors. You’ll need to sign up with one of them to accomplish your e-filing.
On the other hand, if the court has e-filing built into its own website, simply follow the instructions on how to proceed, which may require some type of registration/sign-up and then a procedure for uploading your documents and making any applicable payment.
One example of a court using its own e-file system is San Joaquin Superior Court.
As another example, see El Dorado County Superior Court which boasts that “from the convenience of your computer” you can do “fax filing online”. Technically fax filing is not considered e-filing (even when you do it from your computer) but this example demonstrates the importance of checking the website of your local court for unique variations.
b. Create An Account with an E-File Vendor
If you are in a court that implements e-filing by using a private company, the first step is to select one of the companies from the court’s list of approved vendors, which you will find on the court’s website.
By way of example, I’ll talk about a vendor called One Legal, because it is an established company that can file in all 58 counties (by e-file where it is available and via delivery of paper documents in counties that have not implemented e-filing). I do not have a relationship with One Legal, it is just a convenient example for instructional purposes and is a service that I often use.
After selecting a vendor, you’ll need to create an account with that vendor, following the online instructions of that particular company. There should not be a fee to create this account (they make their money when you file something not from the mere existence of the account). However, you will have to enter the details for a form of payment, ensuring that they can charge fees as you use the service.
One legal and similar companies market themselves to attorneys and therefore the language on their websites is written as if these services are only for attorneys and law firms. Don’t let that deter you. As you progress through the signup process you will eventually be able to select an option that states you are self-represented.
Just follow the prompts to create an account, and you’ll figure it out pretty easily.
c. File a Document Using an E-File Vendor
Let’s pretend you need to respond to a collection lawsuit that is pending in a Superior Court in California. We’ll continue to use One Legal in our example.
After you create an account and log in you will want to select the option “Court Filing” because you are trying to file something with a court. As a defendant in the case, you will then select “subsequent filing” which refers to the fact that you are attempting to file something in a case that already exists at the court (you are not attempting to start a brand new case).
Next, you will be presented with a dialogue box for “Court Information” so you can tell the system which court you want your documents to be filed at.
The first item in the “Court Information” dialogue box is “Choose the Subject Matter Jurisdiction” which allows you to select “State” or “Federal”. You should select “State”. Next, for the item “In What State Would You Like to File Your Document” choose “California”.
The next item is “Choose Your Court”. For this item, select the county in which you have been sued. Normally, this will be the county where you live, but check the lawsuit documents to make sure; it might be a county in which you previously lived. If the lawsuit you received is captioned with “Superior Court for the County of Los Angeles” then under “Choose Your Court” select the item that reads “Los Angeles County, Superior Court of California”.
The next item in the “Court Information” dialogue box varies, depending upon the information you have provided so far. The form might prompt you to “Choose the Court Location”. Or, if you are trying to file at a court where One Legal is connected to the court’s database, the form might ask you different questions in order to automatically route your e-filing down the correct path. For example, you might be asked to choose a “case category,” and then prompted for the case number.
If the One Legal system does not figure out the court location for you, then if you are asked to select a particular courthouse, you may need to refer to the lawsuit documents for that information.
There are a few more screens of questions to work through, and I won’t cover all of them. Have your paperwork in front of you as you work on this. It is a good idea to save your progress as you work your way through (there is a button for that). Take note of the fact, that if you are submitting an application for a fee waiver with your documents, or relying upon the court’s prior order granting a fee waiver, you might need to look around for instructions on how to alert the court to your fee waiver, so you are not charged money unnecessarily.
Eventually, you will be prompted to upload the document you are trying to file. Do this in the usual manner for uploading documents. You’ll then be asked to name the document and to identify what type of document you are filing. For example, if you are filing an “answer” you can type “answer” in the dialogue box, and you will be able to select from document types that have “answer” in the name.
As you work through this process, keep in mind that if you do something wrong, it’s not the end of the world. Even for experienced attorneys, it is fairly common to have submissions “rejected” and bounced back. That’s okay: The court clerk will send it back with a message telling you the reason it was rejected and then you will have an extra piece of information to help you get it right when you try again. (This is a good reason to not wait until the last day).
c. Provide a Proof of Service
For any document that you want the court to accept for filing, you need to have a document called a “proof of service” (sometimes called a “declaration of service”). This is true whether you are filing your document in the form of physical paper, or via e-filing.
The reason for this requirement is that, once the case has been started, the court clerk is not supposed to accept any documents for filing unless those documents have already been properly served to the other side. Therefore, the clerk will not accept your document for filing unless you provide a signed proof of service pertaining to the document you are trying to file. (An exception to this rule is that an application for a fee waiver does not need to be served on the other side and no proof of service is required for that document).
This article is not about how to properly prepare a proof of service, but be aware that people frequently botch up that part of the equation. Consider researching how to properly effectuate service and prepare a proof of service, if you are uncertain.
For current purposes, the point is that you need to submit a proof of service to the court along with the document that you are trying to file.
d. Account for the Filing Fee
Filing certain documents at the court can cost money. For example, if you are filing your initial response to a lawsuit, it will cost a minimum of $185 and possibly over $400, depending upon the specific type of case and the paperwork involved (unless the court issues an order granting you a fee waiver).
Do you remember when you had to provide a form of payment when you signed up with the e-File vendor? This is part of the reason why that happened. So, be aware of the fee that you are being charged as you file your documents. Different vendors handle this in different ways, but one way or another that money comes from you, possibly today or possibly in a week or so.
The e-file vendor will charge something in addition to the court fees. If it is a true e-filing situation, it will likely be less than $20. If the targetted court does not have true e-filing, then behind the scenes the vendor might have to send a runner to the court, and this might cost much more depending on the logistics of getting documents to the court in question (usually between $50 and $150).
e. Keep Your Records
If your filing is successful then you should eventually receive an email confirmation. You might also receive a pdf of your document, now stamped “Filed”. Keep this, in case you need it.