If you only watch one video about using the federal Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER) system, make it this video by Free Law Project’s Brian Carver: “Using PACER: What Could Possibly Go Wrong?”

The video provides a demonstration of what a regular member of the public might experience trying to find a copy of a recent newsworthy federal district court opinion on the court’s website and through the federal PACER system. This example was genuinely chosen because Brian himself had heard about a recent newsworthy case out of the District Court for the District of Maryland. In fact, we’re fairly sure that other examples might cast these sites in an even worse light.

Free Law Project believes that Congress should provide adequate funding to the federal courts so that the financial argument for PACER’s fees would be moot and everyone could agree that public access to court records should be free. But even in the absence of that, we conclude from this demonstration that the non-document related fees in PACER for search results and reports that are charged without an interstitial warning of their magnitude are particularly onerous and should be abolished. The courts could take this step immediately, while continuing to charge for actual court documents by the page, and a major obstacle to public access would be removed. Of course the video demo also illustrates a number of usability concerns that we think are best resolved by allowing third parties, such as Free Law Project, to build better search and access tools on top of these documents, but this is only feasible if at least these third parties are given free or very low cost bulk access to the underlying documents. We hope the Administrative Office of the Courts will be open to such options.

We recommend watching the video Full Screen and/or in High Definition so that the slides are readable.