Surprise: Bill Introduced To Finally Make PACER Free To All

from the nice! dept

So this is somewhat unexpected, but Rep. Doug Collins has introduced HR 6714, a bill to make federal court records free to the public.

H.R. 6714, the Electronic Court Records Reform Act, would guarantee free public access to federal court records through the Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER) system, which currently charges the public a fee to access documents. The bill would also require updates to the PACER system, including adding a function to enable all users to search its catalog of court documents easily. Currently, litigants are handicapped because they cannot conduct research through the system.

The bill would further support legal professionals and the general public by consolidating the Case Management/Electronic Case Files (CM/ECF) system. The CM/ECF system was designed to increase efficiency for all stakeholders within the judicial system, but it is compartmentalized among different courts. This makes locating records and filing documents difficult and inefficient. The Electronic Court Records Reform Act would unify these disconnected systems under the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts in order to ensure uniform access to all federal litigants.

This would be… amazing. We’ve spent years highlighting the massive problems with PACER, the federal court system that charges insane amounts for basically everything you do, just to access public records, and which functions very much like it was designed around 1995. There are a few court cases arguing that PACER fees are illegal and a recent ruling in one of those cases agreed. As we noted at the time, that was hardly the final word on the matter. A bill like the ones Collins introduced would be an amazing leap forward in giving public access to court documents.

Unfortunately, it’s unclear if the bill has any support beyond Collins, but this is the kind of thing you would hope that Congress could get behind.

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Comments on “Surprise: Bill Introduced To Finally Make PACER Free To All”

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FMHilton (profile) says:

About time!

We, as the public, pay for the courts and their personnel, their electronics and everything else. It’s about time we got something back for all the money we spend on the court system.

I hope it does see the light of day. Could have used it back in the day when I was paying for printing out reams of casework from courts. I couldn’t afford it then, but had to pay for it because that’s the way it was.

Carrie says:

This would be life changing.

Right now lawyers have ad-hoc systems of signing up for docket alerts on cases they know matter to their field, but it’s very ad-hoc and stop-gap.

For a lot of standard motion practice (as opposed to major merits rulings), Westlaw doesn’t store brief samples or rulings – so there’s a huge amount of content that doesn’t have readily findable sample briefs. There’s a ton of unnecessary duplication of work.

Bloomberg has a decent Pacer docket text search option across courts, that can at least help you find the sort of thing you’re looking for. But it’s $$$ and doesn’t work that well.

There is no service that lets you search BOTH the docket text, AND the underlying PDF text.

A general “federal court records” search box would be a pipe dream come true.

Also, one note. As much as PACER is terrible, it’s still 20x better than any system in any state court ever. Huge swaths of state courts are still paper-only.

John Smith says:

Can’t wait until lawyers see how this is going to enable pro se litigantsd to file much more sophisticated legal paperwork, orcitizens to find previously hidden-in-plain-sight “dirt” on companies or rich people who have been sued.

The logic behind charging for PACER acces is that the ongoing cost of running an agency should be funded by fees, which is why it costs money to file a lawsuit, get a driver’s license, etc.

I suspect this will not pass once the layer lobby checks in, though it’s a nice thought.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

The logic behind charging for PACER acces is that the ongoing cost of running an agency should be funded by fees

…which, as stated in the article, far exceed the costs—enough that judges are saying it could be illegal., BTW, hosts way more data for $10 million/year and lets everyone download it for free; they’re willing to host PACER documents, and are already hosting everything they’ve been able to get (mostly via the RECAP software).

Anonymous Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

Re: Re:

While I don’t disagree with your premise that certain professions keep their methods difficult for the average person to comprehend in the interest of differentiating their ‘expertise’ (and charging a premium), there is nothing about this law that won’t benefit lawyers. Whether they apply the savings to their clients bills is another thing.

That pro se respondents will also have an easier time won’t reduce the need for lawyers as there is still this thing called interpretation and another thing called rules. Knowledge and applicability of those interpretations and knowing when to act (according to the rules) can make all the difference in some cases. Ever hear an Appellate Court say they should have brought that up at the original trial (as an example)?

The whole concept of law, the whole concept of accounting (and there are others) are based upon the necessity of expertise. While I might have some disdain for how they go about valuing their expertise, I do not deny that there are times when their expertise is of value. They have expertise in their fields, and I have expertise in mine.

Often when they have gotten involved in my field (I am unaware of any that didn’t) they have needed to call on me or someone like me because they are expert in their fields, and not mine. I need both hands, both feet and a few more people’s hand and feet to relate the number of times my expertise was needed to help lawyers and accountants (and some others) when they invested out of their fields. They have all been satisfied customers. I don’t feel the need to document them as I have the satisfaction of having served them well to sustain me, and don’t need your approval.

Now your field, which is unknown to us, you claim expertise. You claim writing books that explain your expertise. You claim that your expertise in your written form is in demand, so much so that that “millions of copies” have been downloaded, and one assumes valued. Or was it laughed at?

Just what is your expertise? Mine is known, so your comeback needs to be about you, not me or us.

You don’t know…do you?

John Smith says:

Re: Re: Re:

I choose to remain anonymous so obviously such a discussion is not possible. The reader is free to choose to believe what they want. Piracy is rampant, so SOMEONE has been pirated millions of times, be it me or someo9ne else.

Whether or not Im’ an “expert” is in the eye of the reader, though I’lls ay I have a sufficient reader base, albeit anonymously.

From what I gather, the court system is designed to discourage people from using it at every term. Some say that a just is pro-Plaintiff or pro-Defendant, but I find most of them to be pro-Judge.

I’m also not convinced lawyers have any intellectual monopoly on sharp legal analysis. That would presume that everyone on the planet who is not a lawyer wanted to become one, an d failed. Many legal processes (like unemployment hearingsin some states) allow for a nonattorney “advocate” to represent (something equivalent to a parlegal). I think we’re moving in that direction and this may be a first step.

My position on UPL is that membership in the Bar Association should guarantee the right to practice law, but that the lack of membership, or lack of a formal education, should not necessarily bar it, with that category of advocate required to gain pro hac vice admission, at the discreation of a judge. “Your Honor, shouldn’t YOU be the one to decide if I may practice in this court?” Goodappeal to judicial narcissism anyway.

The ase of Shon Hopwood could be construed as a precedent, since he certainly wasn’t an attorney, was all but functioning as one (or as a very high-level paralegal) while helping follow prisoners with their cases, and he eventually became a law professor. He was neither sanctioned nor barred, and in fact embraced by lawyers, when he was doing what would have been called UPL on the outside.

If one uses the arguments that copyright law is obsolete, we could say the same about UPL laws, though not likely with any kind of support from this audience.

Anonymous Coward says:


which functions very much like it was designed around 1995.

Not to be too snarky, but some aspects of the web from that era were better than what we have now. Among the sins of the modern web:

  • Infinite scrolling
  • Pages that resist archiving/scraping because they’re nothing but interactive Javascript, which requires a custom scraper just to figure out the URLs to fetch
  • Pages that resist archiving/scraping because they’re completely nonsensical without their supporting stylesheets to arrange the page to be "pretty"
  • Pages scattered across multiple top level domains
  • Gratuitous redirects, particularly those that break use of "Back" to go backward in an obvious fashion
  • Links that are unnecessarily not real links ("real" links point to a resource that can be fetched and rendered, not to script which might cause a new resource to be loaded), so "Open in new tab" doesn’t work properly
Schlomo McGill says:

This means no access at all

Two years to develop a completely new system that will satisfy every type of court (bankruptcy,district,appellate,national, and supreme) as well as state court needs? And no funding until states sign on and pay some undefined fee sometime in the future?

This bill would end public access to court electronic records. It’s poorly considered and its effects are not at all understood by anyone who wants actual “free” access. It shows a complete lack of undersytanding of budgeting, software development, court processes, and the difference among the federal courts — let alone the differences between state and federal court requirements.

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