Alliance for Justice, along with the National Veterans Legal Services Program and the National Consumer Law Center, has today filed a class action lawsuit in federal court accusing the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts of illegally charging excessive fees to access court records through its online Public Access to Court Electronic Records system (PACER).
The lawsuit charges that the Administrative Office is in violation of the E-Government Act of 2002, which mandated that the fees to access court records online cannot exceed the amount needed to maintain the system itself. Instead, the lawsuit argues, fees have been improperly increased in order to cover other costs, such as courtroom audio systems or flat-screen televisions in jury boxes. The plaintiffs believe that improperly assessed fees may serve to inhibit public access to vital court records. The Administrative Office has also employed a practice of discouraging waivers of the fees for pro se litigants, journalists, researchers, and nonprofit organizations, and has even hired private collection agencies to sue people who cannot afford to pay the fees. Put together, those actions and policies run counter to the statutory mandate that court records be “freely available to the greatest extent possible.”
Alliance for Justice President Nan Aron explained her organization’s participation in the lawsuit, saying, “Faith in our judicial system depends on transparency and uninhibited access to court documents for all Americans, regardless of the ability to pay. It’s particularly disturbing that the courts themselves are violating a plainly written law, especially one designed specifically to promote public confidence in the judicial system.”