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Is PACER Providing Sufficient Public Access to Federal Court Documents?

Pop quiz: Do you know what PACER stands for? I, admittedly, had to look it up, despite having been a frequent user in years past. But it's Public Access to Court Electronic Records. We've previously covered the ongoing crusade (led by Carl Malamud) to make court documents, PACER and otherwise, available for free in several posts

In that last linked post, I mentioned that the federal government was engaged in a "comprehensive study" of how to improve its services to the public. Harlan Yu at Freedom to Tinker posted yesterday that the study has been completed, and while the results have not officially been released, he did find an interview with Bankruptcy Judge J. Rich Leonard, in which Leonard discusses some of the findings.

Leonard paints a pretty rosy picture in terms of user satisfaction, claiming that 80 percent of surveyed users were purty darned happy with the system. But Yu questions the fundamental premises of the study:

If we compare public access before we had PACER to where we are now, there is clearly much success to celebrate. But the key question is not only whether current users are satisfied with the service but also whether PACER is reaching its entire audience of potential users. Are there artificial obstacles preventing potential PACER users -- who admittedly would be difficult to poll -- from using the service? The satisfaction statistic may be fine at face value, assuming that a representative sample of users were polled, but it could be misleading if it’s being used to gauge the overall success of PACER as a public access system.

Yu wonders whether PACER is fulfilling its mission when 45 percent of users appear to be attorneys practicing in the federal courts, and notes that costs may still present an obstacle to potential users despite Judge Leonard's statement that costs were not a major concern identified in the study. Thoughts?

Posted by Eric Lipman on August 18, 2010 at 01:57 PM | Permalink | Comments (3)

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