As many practicing attorneys quickly learn, access to a docket sheet is critical to researching a court case.
Traditionally, lawyers acquired docket sheets from the relevant court by sending someone to make a copy at the courthouse, or calling the court clerk or one of the attorneys on the case. If the court was out of state, it was made even more difficult.
Today, many lawyers obtain federal and some state court docket sheets through new, convenient online systems. The best of these electronic systems is PACER.
PACER (Public Access to Court Electronic Records, www.pacer.gov) provides online access to federal appellate, district and bankruptcy court records and documents.
Launched in 1988, the PACER system revolutionized the ability of practicing attorneys to track developments in a case, even cases to which the lawyer was not a party.
In 1998, the system moved to the Internet. Attorneys now access PACER using a web browser, and users are charged on a per-page basis.
Before logging on to PACER, users must provide contact information and a credit card number. Users are charged 8 cents per page, and HTML documents, such as search results, are broken up into “pages” for billing purposes.
According to PACER, the “charge applies whether or not pages are printed, viewed, or downloaded,” so even a “no-results” search costs 8 cents. The cost to access a single document is capped at $2.40, approximately 30 pages.
In March, the Judicial Conference adjusted the fee schedule so that users are not billed unless they accrue charges of more than $10 of PACER usage in a quarterly billing cycle. Any fee under $10 during that time is waived. According to PACER, the fee adjustment means that 75 percent of PACER users won’t pay any fee this year.
While the system has its advantages, there is a growing movement to eliminate any pay wall that locks up court documents from the public. According to the PACER site, the government documents are not protected by copyright; they are a matter of public record and may be reproduced without permission.
The “Free Access to Law” movement believes the burden of maintaining a credit card account with PACER and paying fees for any case documents should be eliminated.
As a result, RECAP (www.recapthelaw.org) was born, a program created by Princeton’s Center for Information Technology. RECAP is an extension (or “add on”) for the Firefox web browser that enhances PACER, while also helping users build a free and open repository of public court records.
RECAP users automatically contribute the documents they purchase from PACER into a public repository hosted by the Internet archive (www.archive.org/details/usfederalcourts).
RECAP also saves users money by alerting them when a document they are searching for is already available from the repository.
To use RECAP, users log onto PACER and search for dockets and files as they normally would. During the user search, the RECAP program communicates with its web server, uploading documents the user has purchased and, most importantly, checking for documents that are available as free downloads.
When a document is available for download, RECAP displays a small icon next to the official PACER link.
Thus, users always have a choice between downloading the free RECAP version and paying for the PACER version.
You can view a video overview of how it all works at www.recapthelaw.org/install.
As a sign of its instant success, the RECAP repository already has more than 1 million documents available for free download on the Internet archive. And, just this month, RECAP launched its own search engine (archive.recapthelaw.org) where users can search all the documents gathered by the RECAP Firefox extension.
The simple search allows quick access to documents from U.S. District and Bankruptcy Court documents and includes a feature that lists the full docket sheet for a case. The search generates results that then point directly to the files on the Internet archive.
Just because RECAP exists does not mean that PACER is done with its commitment to providing public access to court information. The PACER website recently received a makeover and now includes an excellent map of the circuit courts (www.pacer.gov/map.html). Clicking on any district leads a user directly to the links for the various courts sites (appeals, bankruptcy, district, etc.) where users can acquire PACER documents.
The Judicial Conference also recently approved a plan to make digital audio recordings available on PACER. The new digital files cost $2.40 and so far seven courts are participating: U.S. Bankruptcy courts in Rhode Island, Maine, Eastern District of North Carolina, Northern District of Alabama and Southern District of New York; and the U.S. District Courts in Nebraska and the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.
While sites like RECAP can provide access to a growing list of documents for free, PACER, with its new fee structure, easy search interface and digital audio files will continue to make improvements to bring the courtroom, the clerk’s office and the judge’s chambers directly to an attorney’s desktop.
– By Kyle K. Courtney, an attorney and librarian at Harvard Law School