October 14, 2003

The federal court system is gradually moving its legal information online, making it much easier to search and read case information. The convenience of online access to court documents might eventually revolutionize court reporting.

The Public Access to Court Electronic Records system (known as PACER) allows users to get case and docket information online from Federal Appellate, District, and Bankruptcy courts.

At least 26 of 94 U.S. District Courts and 60 of 90 bankruptcy courts are now using online electronic systems for tracking some or all files, according to the Associated Press. Appellate courts will convert next year.

In some cases, you can get the whole case online, from the first motions filed to depositions to the judgment. Other information available online can include:

  • A listing of all parties and participants, including judges, attorneys, and trustees

  • A compilation of case-related information, such as cause of action, nature of suit, and dollar demand

  • A chronology of dates of case events entered in the case record

  • A claims registry

  • A listing of new cases each day

  • Appellate court opinions

  • Judgments or case status

  • Types of documents filed for certain cases

  • Images of documents entered into evidence

You can see which courts make information available online and access links to them via this page.

PACER is extremely easy to use and it is cheap. The courts charge seven cents per page you access — a good deal considering most courts charge more than that for photocopying.

Not only that, but the law states that no fee is actually owed until a user accrues more than $10 worth of charges in a calendar year. If you don’t look at more than $10 worth of pages between Jan. 1 and Dec. 31 each year, your balance is deleted from PACER’s records.

You need an account to search the service, which you can sign up for here.

The system has improved dramatically since I used the dial-up version years ago, back when dinosaurs roamed the earth. These days, PACER sets the pace for how government agencies should handle public records in the digital age. Let’s hope the rest of the government keeps up.


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Jonathan Dube is the Director of Digital Media for CBC News, the President of the Online News Association and the publisher of CyberJournalist.net. An award-winning…
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