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Judiciary Approves PACER Innovations To Enhance Public Access

March 16, 2010

Contact: Karen Redmond, 202-502-2600

The Judicial Conference of the United States today approved key steps to improve public access to federal courts by increasing the availability of court opinions and expanding the services and reducing the costs for many users of the Public Access to Electronic Court Records (PACER) system. At its biannual meeting in Washington, D.C., the Conference voted to:

— Allow courts, at the discretion of the presiding judge, to make digital audio recordings of court hearings available online to the public through PACER, for $2.40 per audio file.

— Adjust the Electronic Public Access fee schedule so that users are not billed unless they accrue charges of more than $10 of PACER usage in a quarterly billing cycle, in effect quadrupling the amount of data available without charge. Currently, users are not billed until their accounts total at least $10 in a one-year period.

— Approve a pilot in up to 12 courts to publish federal district and bankruptcy court opinions via the Government Printing Office’s Federal Digital System (FDsys) so members of the public can more easily search across opinions and across courts.

The Conference approved the plan to make digital audio recordings available on PACER after a two-year pilot project showed significant public interest in accessing these files. Prior to the pilot, such access was possible only by obtaining a CD recording from a court clerk’s office for $26. During the pilot, Internet access to the same content cost eight cents, but the $2.40 fee approved today was deemed by the Conference to be reasonable and come closest to recouping, but not exceeding, costs. Digital audio recording is used in most bankruptcy and district courts (where magistrate judges account for most of the usage).

For printed court documents, the $10 fee waiver affects tens of thousands of PACER users. In fiscal year 2009, about 153,000 PACER account holders—nearly half of all active accounts— did not receive a bill. For that 12-month period, a quarterly waiver would have affected an additional 85,000 accounts— resulting in 75 percent of all active accounts not receiving bills. Analysis of fiscal year 2008 billing data showed a similar impact.

As mandated by Congress, electronic access to court information is funded through reasonable user fees, and not through taxes paid by the general public. Last year, PACER received more than 360 million requests for electronic access to information from the over 33 million federal cases that have documents online. The Electronic Public Access fee revenue is used exclusively to fund program expenses and enhancements that increase public access to the courts. As a result, PACER is a very economical service: the charge for accessing filings, other than opinions, is just eight cents per page, with a maximum charge of $2.40 regardless of the length of a document. At federal courthouses, public access terminals provide free PACER access to view filings in that court, as well as economical printouts (priced at ten cents per page). The charge for copies from the paper case file in the clerk's office was—and remains—50 cents a page.

All court opinions are available through PACER free of charge, and that will not change. The pilot project to make bankruptcy and district court opinions also available through the Government Printing Office’s system will enhance public access to those opinions.

The Judiciary is conducting a comprehensive assessment of its Electronic Public Access Program services to identify potential enhancements to existing services and new public access services that can be provided to litigants, the bar, and the public. All active PACER users were welcomed to participate in at least one of the assessment surveys, focus groups, or interviews. The results of that assessment will be available by July 2010.

The US Party/Case Index is a tool that enables users to locate a case across the federal courts. The application has been running in its current format since September 1999, and currently receives over 200,000 searches daily. A new version of the search tool, which includes additional search capabilities and result formats, has been developed and will be deployed under the new name PACER Case Locator this month.

The Judicial Conference is the policy-making body for the federal court system. The Chief Justice serves as its presiding officer. It is comprised of the chief judges of the 13 courts of appeals, a district judge from each of the 12 geographic circuits, and the chief judge of the Court of International Trade. The Conference meets twice a year to consider administrative and policy issues affecting the court system, and to make recommendations to Congress concerning legislation involving the Judicial Branch.