Holding the Government Accountable

Plaintiffs Protest PACER Pricing

Have you ever paid to view or download federal court documents through the clunky online portal of the Public Access to Court Electronic Records System (PACER)? If so, you may soon be able to join a proposed class action lawsuit that alleges you were overcharged.

The organizations that filed the lawsuit—National Veterans Legal Services Program, National Consumer Law Center, and Alliance for Justice—claim the office that maintains PACER, the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts (AO), is illegally charging more than is necessary to maintain the system and using the excess to fund a multitude of non-PACER related activities.

The AO currently charges users a fee of 10 cents per page—the fee applies whether or not the page is printed or downloaded—and a maximum of $3 per document. The per-page charge has increased more than 40 percent since 2004.

The lawsuit alleges the E-Government Act of 2002 requires PACER fees to be “reasonable” and no higher than “the marginal cost of disseminating the information,” but that the AO is charging in excess of this cost and using the revenue “to cover the costs of unrelated projects—ranging from audio systems to flat screens for jurors.” According to the complaint, $12 million of the revenue generated from PACER was spent on the system in 2012, while nearly $29 million was spent on courtroom technology upgrades.

Overcharging isn’t the only problem. The lawsuit also alleges the AO is hindering access to court records by discouraging fee waivers, blocking the dissemination of documents obtained by those who are granted waivers, and hiring private lawyers to aggressively pursue users who owe fees.

If the plaintiffs are allowed to proceed as a class action, individuals and entities that have paid to use PACER in the past six years will be entitled to join in the lawsuit and share in a monetary recovery. The complaint estimates approximately 2,000,000 potential class members.

Now, if only something could be done about PACER’s cumbersome, outdated interface.