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Lawsuit claiming public being milked for access to court records advances by David Kravets, arsTechnica (1/25/2017).
A lawsuit that claims the public is being overcharged by the US government’s website for accessing federal court records just took a major step forward. A federal judge overseeing the litigation against PACER, the Public Access to Court Electronic Records system, just certified the case as a class action—meaning anybody who has used the service between 2010-2016 might be entitled to refunds if the government loses or settles.
PACER (Public Access to Court Electronic Records) is a database of databases of judicial opinions, pleadings, motions and other papers from 94 district courts, 93 bankruptcy courts, and 13 circuit courts that compose the federal judiciary.
The RECAP project was initially a firefox/chrome extension which allowed users to automatically search for free copies during a search in the fee-based online PACER system and allowed users to build up a free alternative database at the Internet Archive.
The Free Law Project has announced that it has built a new archive of all the PACER documents captured by the RECAP project. The archive is available at https://www.courtlistener.com/recap/ and is fully searchable for the first time. It contains more than ten million PACER documents, including the extracted text from more than seven million pages of scanned documents
The Free Law Project also said that it will be launching a PACER/RECAP data service in the next few months that will help journalists and researchers acquire and understand PACER content. The Project will also be building a RECAP Clearinghouse that will provide some of the functionality of the firefox/chrome extensions, allowing researchers and organizations to use an API to get content from PACER.
The RECAP project is designed to help solve The PACER Problem by providing enhanced, free, meaningful public access to federal court records.
Read the complete announcement with many more details here:
- Free Law Project Re-Launches RECAP Archive, a New Search Tool for PACER Dockets and Documents by Michael Lissner, Free Law Project (22 November 2016).
“Creating an archive for all free PACER opinions and a clearinghouse for new content should quickly create a large and useful collection of PACER content. This will enable researchers, journalists, and organizations to focus their efforts where it matters — creating new research, identifying and telling important stories, and innovating the legal marketplace. We hope you will join us in this effort, and that if you find these services and tools valuable, that you will support our work with a donation.”
Hat tip to Gary Price at InfoDocket!
Also see: PACER and EDGAR.
Here’s some solid research by the Free Law Project about Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER). Amazing how much revenue PACER makes each year. That’s a TON of pages downloaded by users of public domain legal information! And they’ve got some ideas for developing a solution to this problem.
In total, that’s $1.2B that PACER has brought in over 21 years, with an average revenue of $60.7M per year. The average for the last five years is more than twice that — $135.2M/year.1 These are remarkable numbers and they point to one of two conclusions. Either PACER is creating a surplus — which is illegal according to the E-Government Act — or PACER is costing $135M/year to run.
Whichever the case, it’s clear that something has gone terribly wrong. If the justice system is turning a profit selling public domain legal documents through its public access system, that’s wrong. If the judicial branch needs $60M/year to run a basic website, that’s gross waste, and that’s wrong too.
Something needs to be done to rein in PACER, and again we ask that public citizens, Congress, journalists, and the courts work to develop a solution.
PACER Class Action Advances By JUNE WILLIAMS Courthouse News Service (September 27, 2016).
A federal judge refused Monday to dismiss a class action accusing the U.S. government of systematically overcharging for access to court records through its system PACER, short for Public Access to Court Electronic Records.
Bryndon Fisher sued the United States for a putative class, claiming that “PACER overcharges users because of a faulty pricing formula,” U.S. Court of Federal Claims Judge Thomas Wheeler wrote in his order refusing the government’s motion to dismiss.
The Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER) document system of the US Courts provides online access to US Appellate, District and Bankruptcy court records. But this access is not free; PACER charges users $.10/page to access and download court documents. For years, many have pointed out both the technical and philosophical problems with the the PACER system; In fact, the Center for Information Technology Policy at Princeton University and the Free Law Project got together to create a firefox/chrome extension called RECAP, which allows users to automatically search for free copies during a search in the fee-based online US legal database PACER, and to help build up a free alternative database at the Internet Archive.
So it should come as no surprise that the US Courts Administrative Office is getting sued because, the plaintiffs say that PACER is using bad math to overcharge users. Below is the crux of the tech dirt article.
Bryndon Fisher says PACERs math is screwy. He dug into PACERs page calculations and, according to his class action lawsuit, it almost always adds its bytes up incorrectly. (via Courthouse News and Venkat Balasubramani):
Based on an extensive investigation into PACER’s billing practices, PACER exhibits a systemic error that overcharges users for accessing docket reports in violation of its stated policies and procedures.
The basic problem is simple. PACER claims to charge users $0.10 for each page in a docket report, up to a maximum charge of $3.00 per transaction. Since by default, these docket reports are displayed in HTML format, PACER uses a formula based on the number of bytes in a docket to determine the number of billable pages. One billable pages equals 4,320 extracted bytes.
In reality, however, the PACER billing system contains an error. PACER artificially inflates the number of bytes in each extracted page, counting some of those bytes five times instead of just once. As a result, users are systematically overcharged for certain docket reports.
Fisher says this error is resulting in overcharges for everyone using PACER. He tallied up his costs and found PACERs bad math caused a significant cost increase.
During the past two years, Fisher accessed 184 court docket reports using PACER and was charged and paid a total of $109.40 to the AO for this access. These charges do not include access to the individual PDF documents, only access to the docket reports.
Over this two-year period, based on the formula contained in the PACER User Manual, Fisher should have been charged $72.40, representing an overcharge of $37.00 or approximately 51%.