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PACER’s bad math overcharges users. US Courts Administrative Office sued

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%.