Another Way U.S. Courts Deny Access to Justice – Excessive Fees

A broad coalition is seeking to prevent federal courts from charging the public excessive fees to retrieve court documents through the internet.

The Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts provides access to court documents through a service called Public Access to Court Electronic Records or PACER.

A coalition of 15 public interest groups states that PACER raises more than $140 million annually for the U.S. Courts, although some estimates put the cost of storing and retrieving that data at just over $225,000. They note the cost to store data has decreased 99.9% in the last two decades but the judiciary has chosen to increase PACER fees from $0.07 to $0.10 a page. The groups are urging Congress to advance legislation to eliminate PACER fees entirely.

The groups include Fix the Court, American Society of Magazine Editors, Free Law Project, Government Information Watch, National Press Foundation, The Society for Professional Journalists and Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

Earlier this month, a three-judge appellate panel of the U.S. District Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit ruled PACER fees are impermissibly exorbitant and far beyond the standard of “reasonable” as required. This was a victory for the plaintiffs but leaves the door open for continued fees.

Excessive fees obviously make it difficult for the general public to gain access to U.S. Courts to, among other things, prosecute illegal discrimination.

In a letter to Congressional representatives, the advocacy groups argue that only Congress can make Pacer free and “end PACER’s unjust fee structure” They also urged passage of legislation that would improve Pacer’s functionality.

Currently, three bills are pending in Congress that would make PACER free: H.R. 1164 (Collins, H. Johnson, Quigley, Roe, Higgins, Cline, Stanton, Cole, Raskin, Foster); H.R. 6017 (Nadler, H. Johnson, Quigley); and S. 2064 (Cruz, Hirono, Portman, Wyden). All three bills would require the judiciary to build a new case management and electronic case filing system to permit searches across all courts and would require documents to be text-searchable and machine-readable.

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