Once in a while, our national government does something truly useful. That is the case with PACER and the federal courts. PACER makes almost all of the records of the federal trial courts and courts of appeal perfectly transparent and easily accessible over the internet at a very modest price.
The Administrative Office of the United States Courts has just released a summary of an independent customer satisfaction survey regarding PACER. That summary is reproduced below, and is worth reading if you practice in federal court.
PACER has seen a sharp rise in overall user satisfaction since a comparable survey was conducted in 2009, with 90 percent of users saying they are satisfied or highly satisfied with the internet-based public case information system. That compares with 75 percent satisfaction with the overall user experience in the previous survey.
Conversely, only 3 percent of users consider themselves “dissatisfied,” compared with 15 percent four years ago. On a scale of 1 to 5, users also gave a higher average overall satisfaction rating: 4.26 in 2012, versus 3.97 in 2009. The findings, prepared by an independent consultant, were based on an analysis of 1,752 completed surveys, representing a response rate of 20 percent from a randomly selected pool of users.
“It’s a reflection of the conscientious work done up and down the judiciary. They’ve been responsive to the public, and to users generally,” said U.S. Circuit Court Judge Andre Davis, who is a member of the Judicial Conference’s Information Technology Committee.
Figure A: Overall Satisfaction with PACER for 2012 & 2009
Satisfied (4 or 5)
Neither Satisfied nor Dissatisfied (3)
Dissatisfied (1 or 2)
2012 Overall Satisfaction with PACER (1752 respondents) Average Rating =4.26
2009 Overall Satisfaction with PACER (3055 respondents) Average Rating =3.97
Formally called Public Access to Court Electronic Records, the PACER service provides courts, litigants, and the public with access to more than 500 million documents filed in federal courts through the Case Management/Electronic Case Files (CM/ECF) system. In any given year, about a half-million accounts are used to access PACER. (To learn more about PACER, visit http://www.PACER.gov.)
According to an executive summary of the newest survey, numerous upgrades have been made to PACER in recent years—changes that were informed by the results of the 2009 study. Those changes include:
An improved PACER Case Locator, with expanded search capabilities
A redesigned http://www.pacer.gov website
Expanded training, including a partnership with law libraries to train PACER users, a free PACER training database, and online video tutorials
A mobile PACER interface
Streamlined billing for firms and organizations with multiple PACER users, and a redesigned PACER invoice
Expanded availability of free, text-searchable, online public access to court opinions, through the Government Printing Office’s Federal Digital System (FDsys)
Automatic case alerts, through expanded RSS feeds
Audio recordings of some court proceedings
Results indicate that search capabilities remain important to PACER users. Of those surveyed in 2012, 87 percent had used the PACER Case Locator, a tool that allows users to search for information across courts, at least once, compared with 51 percent in 2009. Satisfaction rose in all areas related to searching: 86 percent were pleased with their ability to find cases; 85 were satisfied with the search results, and 79 percent were satisfied with their ability to search for cases across courts. All of those numbers were six to eight percentage points higher than in 2009.
“PACER is user friendly,” one survey taker wrote. “Easy retrieval of documents with no wait time. The most up-to-date information is available.”
PACER users also reported satisfaction with the value they receive for the money they pay, with 81 percent saying they were satisfied and 13 percent describing themselves as neutral. Only 6 percent of users said they were dissatisfied with the value received. Users also gave a 73 percent satisfaction rating for “understanding how PACER is priced,” with 22 percent describing themselves as neutral.
As one user wrote: “Our office utilizes PACER regularly and is very satisfied with the ease of use, availability of documents, and the way PACER charges for documents. Please don’t change it!”
“PACER is a great value for the money,” said Judge Davis, who serves on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, and is the IT Committee’s liaison to the PACER Working Group. “Unfortunately, nothing is free, but it enables us to provide a lot of service. PACER and CM/ECF really are the gold standard of court information systems.”
Figure B: PACER User Types
Legal Sector: 57%
Educational/Research Institutions or Students: 3 %
Pro Se Litigants and Named Parties: 15%
Service Providers to Legal Sector: 1%
Commercial Businesses: 9%
Private Investigators: 2%
*Due to rounding, percentages may not add up to 100%.
The survey found that the demographics and usage of PACER were similar to 2009. The two largest user groups were the legal sector (57 percent) and pro se litigants and named parties (15 percent), followed by commercial businesses (9 percent).
Satisfaction improved among all user groups, with the highest ratings from those who use PACER most frequently, and those who know of the PACER Service Center.
More improvements are planned in conjunction with the Next Generation of CM/ECF, slated for release in 2014.
These include a central sign-on, to give dual users, those who access both PACER and CM/ECF, the ability to move seamlessly between the two systems and across multiple courts. A new user interface also is planned.
“The hope is that it will just continue to get easier to use,” said Judge Davis, who said he is pleased with the transparency PACER has brought to U.S. courts. “As a judge, I want people to know about the courts, and have access to the courts. PACER helps this in a very meaningful way.”