A posting on this blog from Dec. 2007, " FDLP LIBRARIES OFFER FREE ACCESS TO COURT E-RECORDS ", reported that at the urging of American Library Association and the American Association of Law Libraries, the Administrative Office of the US Courts, instituted a two year pilot project to assess the effect of free public access through the Federal Depository Library (FDLP) on the operation of the PACER service.
This was part of the FDLP's attempt to eventually have no-fee public access to PACER's court filing information, provided via federal depository libraries throughout the country. Fifteen states had a depository library participating, most had only one site, CA & MI had two. While the pilot was encouraging, one has to wonder how much usable data can be gathered from transactions at a single or two libraries, for an entire state. To this observer, this study approved by the Administrative Office of the US Courts (AO), seemed more like a measure to pacify these organizations rather than a serious attempt to assess the viability of providing no-fee public access to PACER filings.
The 2008 Annual Report of the Director of the AO, states that " Electronic Public Access Program The mission of the Electronic Public Access program is to facilitate and improve electronic public access to court information at a reasonable cost, in accordance with legislative and Judiciary policies, security requirements, and user demands." ... " As mandated by Congress, the program is funded entirely through user fees set by the Judicial Conference." ( p.23-24)
While the fees are rather low : " Users must register and receive a login and password. Registration is free. PACER fees are seven cents per page,[ now 8cents] and users are billed quarterly. The fee for accessing one document cannot exceed $2.10 no matter the number of pages it contains, and users who do not accumulate $10 in fees in a year are not billed." Many members of the public may not be able to afford the fees nor may they want to register to use the service.
A recent letter by Senator Lieberman to the the Administrative Office questions whether the judiciary is moving toward making this legal information publicly accessible for free, now that the funding requirements have been changed.
In the letter, the Senator questions why the courts are still charging for this information : " While charging for access was previously required, Section 205(e) of the E-Government Act changed a provision of the Judicial Appropriation Act of 2002 (28 U.S.C. 1913 note) so that courts "may, to the extent necessary" instead of "shall" charge fees "for access to information available through automatic data processing equipment." ... " Seven years after the passage of the E-Government Act, it appears that little has been done to make these records freely available - with PACER charging a higher rate than 2002. Furthermore, the funds generated by these fees are still well higher than the cost of dissemination, as the Judiciary Information Technology Fund had a surplus of approximately $150 million in FY2006."
While the annual report mentions a pilot project to make selected audio case files from five courts available online. There is no mention of the pilot project with the (FDLP). One hopes that Senator Lieberman's comments will get the AO to affirmatively move toward free dissemination of PACER data through the FDLP.