Federal Court chiefs agree to reimburse fees for online filings

Federal justice has agreed to pay $125 million to reimburse hundreds of thousands of users of the National Online Records System in a proposed settlement released Tuesday in a long-running lawsuit against reduce the cost of access to court records.

In 2016, three nonprofits accused the judiciary of overloading the review and uploading of records through the service known as PACER, an acronym for Public Access to Court Electronic Records. The deal, which must be approved by a federal judge in Washington, would primarily reimburse up to $350 for fees paid between April 2010 and May 2018. Users who paid more during that time would receive an additional share of the remaining funds.

The settlement does not eliminate PACER user fees. But advocates of court transparency say the unusual case put pressure on the judiciary to overhaul the system and prompted Congress to act.

“When we filed this case, it was unthinkable that we could bring a class action lawsuit against federal justice – in federal justice — and end up getting 100 cents on the dollar in reimbursement for the average PACER user,” said Deepak Gupta, the lead attorney for the three nonprofit groups behind the lawsuit, in an e -mail. “This regulation has already dealt a significant blow to transparency in the future.”

The National Veterans Legal Services Program, the National Consumer Law Center and the Alliance for Justice claimed that the penny-per-page fee illegally exceeded the cost of operating the system. It is estimated that the proposed settlement will reimburse more than 400,000 class members, a group that includes individual users, businesses, academics and media.

In 2020, a federal appeals court upheld a lower court’s finding that the 10-cent-per-page fee was “more than necessary to operate the system,” and the court limited the fee to the amount necessary. to cover the cost of online access. The US Courts Administrative Office will spend about $64 million to operate its court records system this year, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

The cost of storing data has gone down since the creation of the electronic repository in the 1980s, while PACER fees have increased. The litigation showed that the administrative office previously used PACER fees to fund some unrelated projects, including flat-screen televisions for jurors and to send notices to bankruptcy creditors.

In a statement released on Tuesday, the administrative office said it was “satisfied that this case has been resolved” and “is taking steps to modernize the system for the benefit of courts, litigants and the public seeking to access court records through PACER. “.

The judiciary does not require users to read court opinions, and there are waivers for certain users to review other materials. While the lawsuit was ongoing, the judiciary eliminated fees for about 75% of users and doubled the quarterly fee waiver to $30, according to court records.

House lawmakers passed a bipartisan bill to guarantee free access to PACER, and a similar proposal passed the Senate Judiciary Committee last year.

Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.), the House bill’s lead sponsor, said in a statement that the lawsuit “revealed how the judiciary illegally used PACER fees to create a slush fund that escaped congressional oversight, undermined the public’s right of access to First Amendment courts, and ultimately put taxpayers to blame.

Even so, he added, Congress should pass legislation to “make federal court records freely available to the public once and for all.”

In March, federal judicial leaders separately approved a proposal to make PACER searches free for “non-commercial users of any future new modernized system.” To update PACER, court leaders appointed an advisory group comprised of members of the legal profession, government workforce, media and academia to help develop a more user-friendly system.

After the case was sent to Washington District Court, the nonprofits and the Justice Department brokered the deal through a mediator for the government to pay $125 million for incremental costs associated with the use of PACER over the eight-year period.

In their filing of the settlement proposal on Tuesday, the nonprofit groups highlighted the impact of high fees, which they say “impede equal access to justice, impose often insurmountable barriers for litigants low-income and pro se, discourage academic research and journalism, and thus hinder public understanding of the courts.