It is AALL policy that information on government Web sites must be accessible to all people and available without charge, which includes no-fee public access to PACER. PACER stands for “Public Access to Court Electronic Records”) and is the website the federal court system uses to make its public records (complaints, briefs, motions, etc.) available to the general public. However, PACER charges users significant fees to download documents from PACER, even though the information is in the public domain. Although the site is available to the general public, it is difficult to navigate and is therefore used mostly by attorneys and other trained legal researchers (like law librarians!).
Until the federal government makes a commitment to free public access to federal court documents, we have RECAP, a project developed by the Center for Information Technology Policy (CITP) at Princeton University. According to the CITP:
RECAP is an extension (or “add on”) for the Firefox web browser that improves the PACER experience while helping PACER users build a free and open repository of public court records. RECAP users automatically donate the documents they purchase from PACER into a public repository hosted by the Internet Archive. And RECAP saves users money by alerting them when a document they are searching for is already available from this repository. RECAP also makes other enhancements to the PACER experience, including more user-friendly file names.
There is a more detailed description on the RECAP site, as well as a cool video of how it works.
Recently, the CITP made significant improvements to RECAP, most importantly adding search functionality. At the RECAP Archive, you can search all of the documents that have been gathered by the RECAP Firefox extension. There are simple and advanced search options, and the latter allows you to narrow by court, date, docket number, and so on. All absolutely free of charge. Your results will include the full docket sheet for a case, alerting and allowing you to acquire any documents that are on PACER, but not yet included in RECAP.
Other cool features are the option to set up an RSS feed or e-mail alert for your search so that you can track a particular case. The system also allows you to add tags and connect related cases.
If you are a PACER user, I strongly encourage you to download RECAP so that you can add more documents to the database. If you are looking for court filings, check RECAP and you might save yourself some money.