They Don't Teach This in Law School

July 20, 2012

3 minute read

They don’t talk about PDF/A in law school,  but if you're a lawyer who uses the Federal Judiciary’s Case Management/Electronic Case Files (CM/ECF) system, you’re going to need to know about it in the near future.

The CM/ECF system, introduced in 2001, enables lawyers to file documents electronically with the courts via a web browser.  Since then, it has been adopted by the U.S. Courts of Appeals and scores of U.S. District and Bankruptcy Courts. These documents are made available to the public via the Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER) program.

Currently, the CM/ECF system only accepts document in PDF format. They chose PDF for its accessibility and ability to retain the appearance of documents regardless of the computer used to view or print it. The Judiciary has announced that it will change this requirement to accept only PDF/A in the future, but a date has not been announced. The current version of CM/ECF accepts both PDF and PDF/A so it isn’t too early to switch and be compliant before it is mandated.

What version of PDF/A Should You Use?

Information available on the PACER and Federal Courts web sites about the upcoming PDF/A requirements is still vague. For example, it does not specify which version of PDF/A (PDF/A-1a, PDF/A-1b, PDF/A-2) will be required. They do state that one of the reasons for transitioning to PDF/A is to improve the ability to archive documents and comply with requirements of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). This implies that they will be consistent with the PDF specifications defined by NARA. The specifications for NARA-compliant PDF/A files are available on their web site.

Document Conversion Considerations

1. Multiple Formats: The technology you use to generate PDF/A files for filing must support the variety of formats in which they were authored or received, including:

  • Word processors like Microsoft Office
  • Scanned documents
  • PDF files  

2. Size Limits: PDF/A conversion technology must be able to efficiently compress content to remain under file size limitations imposed by most federal courts. These limits are typically 2-5 MB. This is especially important for scanned documents.

3. Searchable PDF:Many courts require electronically filed documents to be text searchable. Scanned documents and image-only PDF files must be converted to searchable PDF using OCR.

4. Compliance: Consistent creation of PDF/A compliant output for all input file format types: Microsoft Word, PDF, scanned document TIFF, etc.  There are several good resources available to learn more about PDF/A and PDF/A technology:

While PDF/A may be a foreign concept to most attorneys and legal firms, compliance with the upcoming regulations for electronic document filing should not be a big problem. From an environmental perspective, the adoption of electronic document management by an industry that consumes as much paper as the legal system does, is great news.

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