Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Balancing Access and Privacy: Free PACER

The latest issue of AALL Spectrum has an essay on PACER. It's fairly conservative in its recommendations, but certainly captures the issues and suggests some positive steps.

Balancing Access and Privacy: Free PACER
By Susan Lyons
  • Release all court decisions and briefs in motions and appeals without restriction on the open Internet and make the files available in bulk to anyone requesting them. These two categories of documents pose little risk to privacy and are among the most used and valuable of the materials in PACER. Exhibits and attachments with private information could be excluded from the release.
  • Give attorneys and litigants free and unlimited access to their own dockets. Under the current system, when a new document is uploaded to the court’s electronic docket, parties receive an e-mail notice that allows them one opportunity to download the document to their own computer without charge. While large law firms may capture these documents in sophisticated case management systems, many smaller firms may need to log in to PACER and incur charges to view documents in their own cases. Free access is especially critical for pro se litigants, who may not have regular access to computers and need to access PACER repeatedly to view files in their own cases.
  • Allow scholars doing empirical research on court records full access to bulk data. The Judicial Conference could establish reasonable limits on the terms of this access that would protect sensitive data.
  • Reinstitute the PACER pilot program and expand the pilot to all federal courthouses. Full release of the database could be prevented by restricting the number of downloads permitted at any one site and instituting reasonable guidelines to prevent abuse. Access should be provided through IP authentication rather than passwords.
Read the full article.