Getting court documents shouldn’t be like pulling teeth. This startup agrees.

September 13, 2013

(Caseflex)

If you're a lawyer, an issue advocate or someone else who tracks court cases, you've probably heard of PACER, the government's database for federal court filings.

It's an indispensable tool, less because the system works well than because there simply aren't many alternatives to compete with what's now a dozen-year-old product. Yes, every filing is available online as a PDF and can be pulled up by docket number, party name and other metadata. But the system is practically useless if you don't have that information at hand; you can't just plug in keywords and expect to find what you're looking for. Worst of all, the public documents on the site cost users money to read. As the New York Times put it in 2009, "Cumbersome, arcane and not free, it is everything that Google is not."

One former attorney wants to change all that. Rich Lee used to be an intellectual property lawyer who got fed up with the "pain points" of using PACER himself. He struck out to build a startup where users wouldn't ever have to deal with the government service at all.

In April, Lee launched a beta version of Caseflex, a Web application that takes the little absurdities of the PACER experience and does away with them. Users who sign up can now have certain cases tracked automatically; they'll be notified of any new documents rather than having to search the system manually to find out if a docket's been updated. Once a PDF has been downloaded once, it gets automatically saved in Caseflex's cloud storage and becomes available for free to other users.

"We can publish them out so that they're totally publicly facing," Lee said. "So if someone wanted to find out about ACLU v. NSA or Samsung v. Apple, they can."

In some ways, Caseflex resembles another project to shake up the PACER ecosystem. That product, a non-commercial experiment known as RECAP, emerged as an alternative from researchers at Princeton and Harvard in 2009. (Disclosure: My colleague, Tim Lee, helped design it.) RECAP operates as a Firefox plug-in and tells users as they're browsing the PACER site when a document has already been downloaded by someone else and is available in the Internet Archive.

But while both tools are trying to crack PACER open, Rich Lee is clear about intending to charge for his service.

"When a user says, 'I want to get this case,' we automatically log into PACER using our account and we purchase all the documents and data and we parse that and we put that into the database," he said.

As a result, Caseflex says it'll charge $0.25 for every day that its automatic case-tracking feature is enabled. Forcing the system to sync on demand costs another $0.25. Over time, that could add up — but at least buying a document won't ever cost more than $2, whereas long PDFs routinely cost $3 each on PACER — or more if you have to go back and download the same one twice for some reason. To pay for Caseflex, users purchase credit that's then deducted from their accounts.

Considering its age, perhaps we should be grateful that PACER's Web site functions at all. Yet if we're really on the cusp of a new PACER-access industry, we won't have to settle for it much longer.

Brian Fung covers technology for The Washington Post.
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