Although libraries provide free access to a great deal of information about the workings of our government, access to some information is easier than others. Information about legal proceedings can often be tough to find. For that purpose, the federal government operates the Public Access to Court Records Electronic System, otherwise known as PACER. Sounds good, right? Well, according to a recent lawsuit, PACER may have broken the law. The merciless reaction from journalists – frequent users of PACER – demonstrates the value of making sure people get easy access to public information.
- Lawsuit accuses PACER of milking the public for cash in exchange for access (Ars Technica | David Kravets) “The cost for access is 10 cents per page and up to $3 a document. Judicial opinions are free. This isn’t likely to break the bank for some, but to others it adds up and can preclude access to public records. The National Consumer Law Center, the Alliance for Justice, and the National Veterans Legal Services Program also claim in the lawsuit that these fees are illegal because the government is charging more than necessary to keep the PACER system afloat (as is required by Congress). The groups cite the E-Government Act of 2002, which authorizes PACER fees necessary ‘to reimburse expenses in providing these services.’ The suit says that millions of dollars in PACER online access fees have been diverted to other courthouse projects instead.”
- Yes, PACER stinks … but is it also overcharging its customers? (The Washington Post | David Post) “Registration and login procedures are cumbersome, the interface is dreadful, and searching is truly state-of-the-art, circa 1995, relying, as it does, on an incomprehensible series of indexing conventions. [You can get a taste of this by using the free “training sessions,’ available here.] It is also quite expensive to use. The system charges $0.10 per HTML page for all documents retrieved by a search – a charge that would perhaps make sense if this were a photocopying machine, but is pretty outrageous for the display of an electronic file.”
- Nonprofits claim PACER fees are too high (Courthouse News Service | Tim Ryan) “In one example, the PACER Service Center sued a single mother of two, claiming she owed more than $30,000 in PACER fees. She admitted printing no more than $80 worth of pages, and said she could not have owned enough paper and ink to print the 380,000 pages needed to rack up such a bill, the class claims in the 15-page lawsuit filed Thursday. ‘The problem here is that first of all, it’s unlawful to charge people for access to these records and then use that money for completely different purposes where the fees are not tied to the actual cost of running the system,’ said Deepak Gupta, the Washington attorney who represents the class. ‘The second problem is that it’s bad policy. It’s sort of a regressive tax on information, if you will.’”
- Lawsuit filed over PACER fees (Techdirt | Mike Masnick) “It’s good that the court system is investing in technology, but it should (1) do so within the law and (2) figure out a way to make PACER information free to the general public already. These documents are critical for the public to understand the judicial system that impacts them on a daily basis. There have been many suggestions for better ways to do this, including making the filing fees for lawyers higher (with exemptions for plaintiffs without means to pay for such lawsuits). You could easily cover the cost of PACER with slightly higher filing fees for corporate plaintiffs, and then still make the overall PACER system better and faster.”
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