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How the PDF/A requirement for Dutch courts is affecting law firm IT professionals

Dean SappeyOn September 1, 2017, the Dutch court system began requiring law firms to submit documents in PDF/A format in two districts: Gelderland and Midden Nederland.  PDF/A is different from a standard PDF format in that it requires the PDF to be fully self-sufficient which includes embedding all fonts, disabling the inclusion of attachments created by other software applications,  and removing any programming scripts in Java Script.  This is important so that the PDF can be opened again in 50 years by any computer in use at that time and the document will be fully readable.

More specifically, the Dutch courts have expressed a preference (not a mandatory requirement) that documents be submitted in PDF/A-2u format, one of the many sub-versions of PDF/A.  This provides more flexibility in the content of the PDF compared to PDF/A-2b (the simplest PDF/A format) while still ensuring it retains its usefulness as an archived document.  However, at this time, the courts accept all PDF/As and are not exclusively requiring PDF/A-2u documents.  

The new PDF/A requirement, part of a pilot program The Netherlands has undertaken to digitize and modernize its court system, has prompted many Dutch law firms to purchase or upgrade software, retrain end-users, and lobby the Dutch government to make the requirements more attainable given the nature of legal documents.  

Netherlands-based law firms Lexence, Loyens & Loeff and Stibbe have all been affected by the new PDF/A requirement in different ways.  All three are using pdfDocs from DocsCorp to stay compliant with the new requirements.  Fortunately, pdfDocs will also support the PDF/A-2u format. Recently, DocsCorp asked IT professionals from these firms about the impact of the PDF/A requirements so far.  We spoke with Matthijs Zegwaard, Manager ICT at Lexence; Arne Jager, Information Specialist at Loyens & Loeff; and Casper Gort, Project Manager at Stibbe.  Here are the highlights of those interviews.

Dean Sappey:  How has your firm been affected by the Dutch courts’ new PDF/A requirement?



  • Matthijs Zegwaard: Lexence does business in both districts that require PDF/A documents - Gelderland and Midden Nederland.  In order to service clients there, we had to invest in a new technology system to be compliant.  We now provide the courts with information via an online portal and deliver metadata about the case and documents.  It was a big change and a new way of working, but we learned and adapted.
  • Arne Jager:  Loyens had to complete some software upgrades, add PDF/A scanning capability, and upgrade our scanning solution.  Now, we use a button in Microsoft Word that converts the document to PDF/A, although it converts to PDF/A-1a rather than PDF/A-2u.  We are currently testing the new version of pdfDocs to make it possible to convert to PDF/A-2u specifically, in one step.  Once we submit our PDF/A document, the court then validates the PDF/A format using its own tools.
  • Casper Gort:  Stibbe has already fulfilled the PDF/A-2u requirement on all computer workstations at the firm.  However, if the standard version required by Dutch court changes to PDF/A-2u, we will need to invest more.  Our scans convert to PDF/A but not to 2u, so if the PDF/A-2u becomes mandatory and not just a preference for the courts, we will have to convert scanned PDF/A documents to 2u after scanning which will have a major impact on our workflow.  Another issue is file size upload limitations – the submission system used by Dutch courts currently limits a document’s maximum size to 10 MB.  Since we commonly encounter files that are 70 or 80 MB, this is a problem.  We can optimize or compress some of the documents to make them smaller, but others we have to split into many parts and submit separately.  

Blackberry

Dean Sappey:  Has your firm contested the 10 MB file size limitation?

  • Casper Gort:  The portal used by the Dutch courts (MijnRechtspraak.nl) was inconvenient to use. Therefore, several law firms in the Netherlands joined forces to form SILEX, an advocacy group designed to communicate about and discuss the changing processes and technical specs with the Dutch government and the Council for the Judiciary.  SILEX, which is in regular contact with the courts, asked them to raise the file size limit to 25 MB. The courts initially agreed, but eventually they reverted to the 10 MB size restriction. At this point, the best we can do is to participate in the pilot, send off documents that fit the criteria and serve our clients.

Dean Sappey: What options do Dutch law firms have to connect to the government’s online portal to submit documents appropriately?

  • Matthijs Zegwaard: The Council for the Judiciary does offer its own portal for access, but our choice was to find a vendor with system-to-system access to the government portal.  Our firm then connected with the vendor to create an internal system, methods and procedures, and a new way of working.  With the new requirements, the way to start a legal proceeding or matter has changed, and law firms need to know how to get started. Law firms have a choice of several vendors to connect to the government system including:
    • 1) The MijnRechtspraak.nl basic government portal to submit court documents.  This option is primarily used by small law firms.
    • 2) Aneto, a middleware product offering connection to the court system office.
    • 3) Instrumenti, developed by Topicus in close cooperation with the SILEX initiative.
    • 4) Armarium, which Lexence chose to implement.  Armarium provides a proper service to connect to the Dutch courts’ system.  Armarium provides a secure working environment to support cases, track court schedules and exchange relevant documents in PDF/A format.  Our users can easily convert and save documents into PDF/A including 2u versions and then use Armarium to upload them to the court’s system.
  • Casper Gort:  One of the concerns was the lack of functionality in the portal provided by the Dutch courts (MijnRechtspraak.nl). Given the gap in the market and to meet the needs of the law firms, SILEX selected a vendor to build a system-to-system to access the portal at the courts.  Commercial software developers Topicus and Epona jointly built Instrumenti for this purpose. Instrumenti is now a commercial portal, which is owned by Topicus. 

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Conclusion

Dutch law firms like Lexence, Loyens and Stibbe have already made considerable investments of time and money to comply with the new requirements to submit documents in PDF/A format to the Gelderland and Midden Nederland courts.  Since this is a pilot program, it is highly likely that these requirements will gradually spread to other jurisdictions in the Netherlands. 

At this point, it’s unclear whether the requirement for PDF/A-2u will become mandatory in the near future or if the requirement will stay at the PDF/A level.  We were unable to get any Dutch court officials to comment on the record for this article.  If PDF/A-2u does become required eventually, those firms using pdfDocs will already have technology in place to support this format, but firms without pdfDocs may have to upgrade their systems.  Most of the older versions of PDF software and low cost PDF products on the market today do not support this format, so Dutch firms will also be forced to accommodate major changes in their scanning and document management workflows to produce PDF/A-2u documents to meet Dutch court requirements.  We are watching this unfold.  Only time will tell what happens next.


Dean Sappey is the President and Co-Founder of DocsCorp, a leading provider of document productivity tools. Dean holds a Computer Science degree from the University of Technology, Sydney and has a successful 25-year track record in developing new products and technologies.  
 

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