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Maybe sometime in e-history, a government worker thought the cost to access a court document electronically should be roughly the same as the cost to print a page.
At least for Public Access to Court Electronic Records: PACER charged 7 cents a page in 1998. The fee increased incrementally thereafter, and today it is 10 cents a page.
It's about the same you pay to copy a page at the courthouse copy machine, which is stocked with paper by the court. Except for one incongruence: PACER users pay for their own paper when they download and print documents.
Maybe this observation doesn't exactly explain the problem with PACER, but there is a real problem with its fee schedule. A federal judge has certified a class action against the federal government for allegedly overcharging users for access. It's the fourth case in a recent spate of claims against PACER fees.
Pennies Add Up
U.S. District Judge Ellen Huvelle said the plaintiffs, three non-profit legal advocacy programs, may represent a class of similarly situated organizations and individuals. That means just about everybody who has paid to use PACER in the past six years.
The plaintiffs claim the fees violate the E-Government Act because they are "far more than necessary to recover the cost of providing access to electronic records." In their complaint, they allege the judiciary collected more than $145 million in fees in 2014, but used much of it for other expenses, such as "courtroom technology, websites for jurors, and bankruptcy notification systems."
They seek to recoup fees under the Little Tucker Act, which entitles them to a "refund of the excessive PACER fees illegally exacted." Rejecting the governments' argument that the plaintiffs did not represent a class, the judge said the plaintiffs may proceed as planned.
"In fact, the nonprofit organizations who are named plaintiffs in this case make particularly good class representatives," the judge said. "They are interested in reducing PACER fees not only for themselves but also for their constituents."
However, the court said that its ruling "no way resolves the merits of plaintiffs' challenge to the PACER fee schedule." The government has been fighting cases over PACER fees on several fronts.
Last June, a judge dismissed a case that alleged PACER's faulty pricing formula overcharged its users. In September, a judge in another PACER case certified a class action alleging a computer error caused overcharging. And in November, other PACER users sued for being improperly charged for judicial opinions.