The Websites Lawyers Use to Start Lawsuits

How do you start a lawsuit?  Do you march to court, throw open a courtroom door, and shout at a judge?  Or do you just hand papers to someone and tell them they are sued?  Or call a special phone number and wait to speak to a representative?

The answer in a lot of places and under many situations is by electronically filing a document!  (There are a bunch of exceptions, but I won’t get into them here)

Why should you keep reading this post about electronic filing documents that initiate a lawsuit?

  • Cool screen grabs ahead

  • Useful information in case you start your own court someday

  • May help explain what you paid your lawyer to do when starting a lawsuit

Lawsuits Often Begin With a Complaint

To begin a lawsuit, you need to tell the court that you are suing someone.  You do this by writing a document that (in New York) is called a complaint, that says who you are, who you are suing, and what the lawsuit is about.  (You also need to pay a filing fee to the court and fill out a form that answers questions about the kind of case you are filing).

This post doesn’t address the hard work that goes into drafting a complaint.  Instead, once the complaint is ready, the next step is to file it with the court.

Complaints Are Usually Electronically Filed in New York

In some counties in New York, you upload a PDF of the complaint to a court website and that starts the case.  The uploading part is usually not so difficult.  But you also have to enter in a bunch of other information, such selecting what kind of case you are filing and providing information about each of the parties.  That part may take awhile because there are a lot of questions. 

In New York State court, the website for filing court documents is called NYSCEF and it looks like this:

Image credit: This is a screen grab I made myself of the NYSCEF website

Image credit: This is a screen grab I made myself of the NYSCEF website

In federal court, the website is called ECF and it looks like this:

Image credit: This is a screen grab I made myself of ECF website

Image credit: This is a screen grab I made myself of ECF website

In addition to uploading PDFs of the complaint, you can pay the filing fees on these websites by credit card.  In federal court, opening a commercial case usually costs $415.  In New York State court, it usually costs $210, and then another $95 to for the court to give your case to a judge.

There Are Electronic Filing Websites in Other Jurisdictions, But Not Everywhere

There are similar websites in other jurisdictions.  For example, here are versions from Florida, South Carolina, and British Columbia.

Image credit: This screen grab was provided to me by a colleague who is a Florida lawyer.

Image credit: This screen grab was provided to me by a colleague who is a Florida lawyer.

Image credit: https://sccourts.org/efiling/ARGs/ARG-06-Initiating_a_Case.pdf

Image credit: https://sccourts.org/efiling/ARGs/ARG-06-Initiating_a_Case.pdf

Image credit: https://justice.gov.bc.ca/cso/help/tutorial/Tutorial_on_CSO_Services.pdf

Image credit: https://justice.gov.bc.ca/cso/help/tutorial/Tutorial_on_CSO_Services.pdf

Electronic filing isn’t everywhere.  They don’t do it in several New York counties, or in Ethiopia, Japan, or Quebec.  And it’s optional in Massachusetts and is only part of the case initiation procedure for certain types of cases in France.  Generally speaking, you usually start a case in some of those jurisdictions by taking your complaint (and a form with questions and your filing fee) physically to the courthouse and handing it to a clerk.

In Germany, attorneys don’t upload files to a website, but instead use special software called EGPV to send emails to the court, attaching the filings for their cases.

People Read Your Complaint After You File It

After you electronically file in New York, a court employee reads your filing and then emails you if you did something wrong.  For example, if your form said that your case was a commercial case but your complaint describes a personal injury case, the clerk may tell you to re-file the case with a corrected form.  This happens pretty often since the forms are not the easiest to use.

In jurisdictions with electronic filing, it’s easier for the public to easily access copies of the complaints.  For example, on the website PACER, lawyers can access virtually every complaint that has been filed in federal court for the past ten years.  And anyone (even non-lawyers) can use NYSCEF to review complaints that have been filed online.