Courts offer libraries free access to e-records

For the first time, the U.S. court system is providing free access to its online court records at select libraries. Lawyers say that waived fees for the system known as Public Access to Court Electronic Records, or PACER, which typically costs 8 cents per search, will empower citizens who choose to represent themselves in court.

On Nov. 8, the government announced that free service would be available at 16 library systems nationwide under a joint project of the courts and the Government Printing Office. The participating libraries must promote the service, administer a user survey and report activity to GPO bimonthly.

National Security Archive General Counsel Meredith Fuchs said she is sure that most of the public is not familiar with PACER, although it has revolutionized access to court records. "Now it is possible to see the complete docket in most cases before waiting for the cases to be decided and the decisions to be published," she said.

By moving to a free system, the courts particularly will aid people who live in remote locations and individuals who are economically disadvantaged, Fuchs said. Elsewhere, the regular 8-cent charge applies for pages that are printed, viewed or downloaded -- or for one page if a search yields no matches. Elsewhere, the regular 8-cent charge applies whether pages are printed, viewed or downloaded.

Coral Henning, from the Sacramento County Public Law Library in California, which is partaking in the pilot, said her facility did not provide the service before because it could not control the costs of downloading and printing.

By viewing sample pleadings filed in cases, more people may be able to protect their interests without depending entirely on lawyers, Fuchs said.

Gretchen Van Dam at Illinois' 7th Circuit Court of Appeals Library, another participating location, said the federal court library located in the Chicago Loop is "heavily used by pro se filers in each of the federal courts in Chicago."

"The idea is fantastic," said National Whistleblower Center General Counsel David Colapinto, adding that now it is up to the libraries and courts to promote PACER's availability. By advertising at courthouses and in clerks' offices, the program can reach people representing themselves, he said.

Van Dam said the press has spread the word locally. Her staff also has informed academic, private and county libraries. The next step will be to let the bar associations and pro se help services in the area know.

Catherine Lemann, who is with the Alaska State Court Law Library, said her institution applied to be a test site because there is no law school in the state.

"No-fee access to the PACER system will allow the branch libraries outside of major regional centers to provide federal court records to patrons who would otherwise not be able to access these important public documents," she said.

Janice Greer at the Fordham University law library in New York said that while some PACER information can be found on free court Web sites, patrons often do not know where to look. "Usually, court Web sites don't have good enough search engines to be able to search for a case without knowing its parties or docket number."

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