Court records are public records. It seems reasonable, then, that they should be widely available to everyone.
Nonetheless, the United States federal judiciary manages a system known as PACER, or Public Access to Court Electronic Records, that charges users a cost of up to ten cents per page to view court documents. For particularly hefty filings – of which there are many – this cost can quickly add up. Currently, attorney users are afforded one “free” look at a court record once they file it, but subsequently, their accounts quickly accrue steep fees as they collect and download documents to prepare for hearings. For high-volume practices like bankruptcy, attorneys often rely on the regular retrieval of new filings and as such, the cost of viewing documents that are essential to representing clients well is a substantial problem.
A new bill proposes to change this by offering free access to PACER court records. U.S. Representative Doug Collins has introduced legislation titled the Electronic Court Records Reform Act (HR 6417), which allows everyone the opportunity to access court records free of charge. Essentially, cost will no longer bar users – attorneys and laypeople alike – from educating themselves about the law. The legislation requires documents to be made available to the public within five days of filing, however, documents could and should be made available without a waiting period. It also proposes to make court records searchable and machine readable, allowing users to search for keywords and interact with the text.
Rep. Collins’ bill also proposes to unify the case management and electronic files system, known as CM/ECF, which is currently compartmentalized across different U.S. federal courts. The legislation purports to merge the variant CM/ECF systems under the single authority of the Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC), so that all litigants and parties in federal cases will have uniform access to the court records in their cases.
If passed, the bill will likely improve not only the affordability, accessibility, and security of court data through a consistent electronic case management system, but will also eliminate burdens to pro se litigants who may not know how to navigate the system, and specifically, where to look for court records and how to access them for free.
Taking the Bill One Step Further: The Necessity of Bulk Extraction
Although HR 6417 proposes much-needed reform, it leaves one legal tech issue on the table: bulk extraction of PACER data. In promoting the bill, Representative Collins stated that “Americans deserve a justice system that is transparent and accessible,” and that the intention behind the bill is to “modernize the judicial records systems and remove free-for-access barriers that technology has rendered unnecessary.” One way to make this a reality is to allow users to bulk-download PACER records.
In many cases, court records are not studied in isolation; they are part of a much bigger picture, and many users, especially federal litigators, will need to retrieve and analyze dozens or even hundreds of filings in cases. Piecemeal downloading of court records is a laborious, time consuming, and highly inefficient process. Conversely, bulk extraction of data in a given case or group of cases can save practitioners tremendous amounts of time and resources.
Bulk extraction of PACER data also powers innovation by ensuring that attorneys, businesses, and legal tech companies alike will be able to access large sets of legal data and have the opportunity to develop new and refreshing use cases for leveraging court records. For UniCourt, bulk extraction means providing our users with more meaningful legal analytics, and the opportunity to train and improve our machine learning technology with new data sets. We are in the age of Big Data, and it should be the age of Big Legal Data too!
Without bulk extraction included in Rep. Collins’ bill, it is still an important step in the right direction towards improving access to justice, but it may miss an important opportunity to truly revolutionize the way all users interact with court data.
The Benefits of a Uniform CM/ECF System
In order to run efficiently, the federal judiciary’s electronic case management system must be uniform and consistent across all federal courts, providing one unified system for all federal filings. Not only will this allow all parties and litigants equal access to the records impacting their cases, it will also eliminate harmful or prejudicial inconsistencies in communications between counsel. When parties on both sides of a dispute have equal access to the same records via a single source, one party will not be able to gain an advantage over another by capitalizing on the other party’s lack of resources.
UniCourt extracts legal data from hundreds of courts across the US, providing us with perspective on the issues surrounding the lack of standards and consistency across systems. A unified CM/ECF system allows for more structured data, which then produces opportunities for machine learning to create better legal analytics and fuel future innovation.
We strongly support the Electronic Court Records Reform Act, improved access to PACER data, and the unification of CM/ECF systems throughout the judiciary. While Rep. Collins’ bill will not likely become law in the current legislative session, we will continue to track its progress and also promote our PACER data cost sharing partnership opportunity.
Contact us to learn more.