Tool is used by public, journalists, to follow court proceedings

In a move that could keep some money in journalistic organization's pockets, Reps. Doug Collins (R-Ga.) and Mike Quigley (D-Ill.) have introduced a bill that would knock down the pay walls between the public and court records.

Currently, to access online copies of various court filings, the public, which includes journalists, have to pay per page to download records via the Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER) system. (In the interests of full disclosure, B&C has such an account).

The fee is "directly related to the requirement that the judiciary charge user-based fees for the development and maintenance of electronic public access services," according to the Judicial Conference, which sets the policies for access.

The fee, ten cents per page, is hardly usurious, but if there are multiple cases with multiple filings of multiple pages each, it can actually add up.

The bill would also require some updates to the system--they call it "antiquated"--which can sometimes to be hard to navigate among the multiple courts, including a general search function.

Public Knowledge, which is all about getting the public more and easier access to information, praised the bill. 

The bill, in addition to eliminating the charge:

• "Requires improvements to the PACER System to make documents more accessible.

• "Promotes accessibility by enabling direct links to documents [currently one must navigate through various screens].

• "Requires audio and visual court records be made available on the PACER System.

• "Consolidates the Case Management/Electronic Filing System (CM/ECF) to ensure uniform access for all litigants.

• "Updates CM/ECF with new technology in order to enhance security."

“Meaningful civic engagement requires that everyone -- not just law firms and individuals with means -- have access to public records," said Policy Counsel Meredith Rose. "Court records should be freely available to the public, including journalists, researchers, activists, and ordinary citizens. ECRRA would remove a substantial hurdle by making meaningful electronic access possible, and we applaud Rep. Collins and Rep. Quigley for their leadership on this issue.”

Currently, PACER does not charge for court opinions, for viewing case information from courthouse terminals, or until an account has more than $15 in charges in a quarter, and parties to cases get one free copy if that is required by law or the filer of the document directs that that be the case.

PACER allows courts to exempt certain classes of people, including indigents and those in bankruptcy, but says, in general, that nobody who can pay should get out of the fee, including "members of the media."

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