The Free Law Project, a non-profit dedicated to providing free, public access to primary legal materials, has announced plans to download all of the free opinions and order available on PACER, the federal courts’ system for electronic access to court records.

Although PACER charges fees for downloading case documents and dockets, it does not charge for access to judicial opinions and orders.

In a blog post, Free Law Project Executive Director Michael Lissner said that his organization is undertaking this project because the documents have monumental value but are not easily available to the public.

These documents are a critical part of America’s legal system, and yet there is no easy and free way to access or analyze them except through expensive third party vendors whose tools are out of reach for many people. This inhibits researchers, journalists, and the public, and is in conflict with the spirit of PACER itself.

The Free Law Project is home to the RECAP Project, an online archive of PACER documents collected from users who install the RECAP extension in their browser. When users purchase documents from PACER, the extension adds a copy to RECAP’s public repository, where it becomes available to anyone else at no charge.

The opinions downloaded as part of this new initiative will be added to the RECAP repository, as well as to the RECAP collection hosted by the Internet Archive.

Making that repository a better reflection of PACER’s actual contents is a second reason for launching this project, Lissner said.

Our current collection of PACER content only has information about a case when the case is downloaded by a RECAP user. This tilts the RECAP Archive towards cases our users download, leaving out a vast swath of important content. This initiative will open up our collection so that we should have basic information about many more cases in the federal district courts. Any case with an opinion or order will be in the RECAP Archive.

In order not to create a strain on the PACER system, the Free Law Project will perform the download process gradually, over several weeks or months. By the end, they expect to have downloaded millions of documents.

Lissner anticipates that downloading, extracting and hosting all these documents this will be a major expense. The project relies in part on donations to support its work. Information on donating can be found here.

Photo of Bob Ambrogi Bob Ambrogi

Bob is a lawyer, veteran legal journalist, and award-winning blogger and podcaster. In 2011, he was named to the inaugural Fastcase 50, honoring “the law’s smartest, most courageous innovators, techies, visionaries and leaders.” Earlier in his career, he was editor-in-chief of several legal publications, including The National Law Journal, and editorial director of ALM’s Litigation Services Division.