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PACER is no one's favorite database. Sure, the Public Access to Court Electronic Records service gives you online access to federal court documents, saving you the hassle of calling a courier or heading down to a courthouse yourself. But the service is not particularly user-friendly, intuitive, or functional. The fact that it nickel-and-dimes you (literally) for every page of public records you view is just icing on the "God, I hate PACER" cake.
And now, a coalition of nonprofits is suing over those fees, arguing that the 10-cents-a-page price tag isn't just excessive, it's illegal.
Ten Cents Is Too Much
Though PACER started out as a microfiche-like library terminal in the late 80s, it's been disseminating court documents online since 2001. In 2002, Congress empowered the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, which runs PACER, to start charging fees for access. Currently, PACER charges ten cents for every page accessed, with a maximum total of $3 per document, even if the document exceeds 30 pages. Audio files cost $2.40 a pop. (Judicial opinions are offered free of charge.)
Those fees violate the terms of the E-Government Act of 2002, the nonprofits allege. The Alliance for Justice, National Veterans Legal Services Program, and the National Consumer Law Center, allege that PACER fees are in excess of the amount authorized by Congress, which allowed charges for services rendered "only to the extent necessary ... to reimburse expenses in providing these services."
Though the law requires PACER to charge fees only to recover "the direct cost of distributing documents" through the database, the Administrative Office has been using PACER funds for a variety of unrelated tasks, the prospective class action claims.
Not Just Overcharging
But the suit doesn't end with fees. In addition to calling out PACER's excessive price tag, the lawsuit claims that the PACER service center discourages waiving fees for pro se litigants, journalists, and researchers. It has even hired private collections agencies to go after PACER users for unpaid fees, according to the suit.
Of course, this isn't the first time PACER has been sued for overcharging. It's not even the first time this year. In January, PACER was hit with another class action. That suit claims that an error in PACER's data formula results in wrongfully overcharging users. That class action, like the nonprofits', is still in the beginning stages of litigation.
You can follow them as they develop -- on PACER, of course.