The Judicial Conference of the United States has announced today approved key steps to improve public access to federal courts by increasing the availability of court opinions and expanding the services and reducing the costs for many users of the Public Access to Electronic Court Records (PACER) system. At its biannual meeting in Washington, D.C., the Conference voted to:
-- Allow courts, at the discretion of the presiding judge, to make digital audio recordings of court hearings available online to the public through PACER, for $2.40 per audio file.
— Adjust the Electronic Public Access fee schedule so that users are not billed unless they accrue charges of more than $10 of PACER usage in a quarterly billing cycle, in effect quadrupling the amount of data available without charge. Currently, users are not billed until their accounts total at least $10 in a one-year period.
— Approve a pilot in up to 12 courts to publish federal district and bankruptcy court opinions via the Government Printing Office’s Federal Digital System (FDsys) so members of the public can more easily search across opinions and across courts.
The Conference approved the plan to make digital audio recordings available on PACER after a two-year pilot project showed significant public interest in accessing these files. Prior to the pilot, such access was possible only by obtaining a CD recording from a court clerk’s office for $26. During the pilot, Internet access to the same content cost eight cents, but the $2.40 fee approved today was deemed by the Conference to be reasonable and come closest to recouping, but not exceeding, costs. Digital audio recording is used in most bankruptcy and district courts (where magistrate judges account for most of the usage).
For printed court documents, the $10 fee waiver affects tens of thousands of PACER users. In fiscal year 2009, about 153,000 PACER account holders—nearly half of all active accounts— did not receive a bill. For that 12-month period, a quarterly waiver would have affected an additional 85,000 accounts— resulting in 75 percent of all active accounts not receiving bills. Analysis of fiscal year 2008 billing data showed a similar impact.