Legal Technology

Free PACER archive adds millions of new documents

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Updated: A free archive of federal court documents just got a whole lot bigger.

The Free Law Project, a California-based non-profit, posted every free written opinion and order available on PACER, the federal courts’ document portal. In total, this new collection contains 3.4 million documents from 1.5 million federal district and bankruptcy cases dating back to 1960, the Project explained in a blog post published Tuesday on the organization’s website.

“Today’s news represents a huge milestone for the project and moves the project into a new stage where we’re not only focused on people’s experience while using PACER, but we’re now also focused on providing data to startups, researchers, journalists, lawyers, and the public via our website,” Michael Lissner, executive director of the Free Law Project, said in an email.

Over the past year, the Free Law Project “crawled” PACER, an automated process to collect web-based information, to build this collection. They also used a process called optical character recognition (OCR) to read and parse upwards of 400,000 scanned documents to extract the text. These documents are available on the CourtListener website.

This work was made possible by a grant from the Department of Labor and two professors studying employment law at Georgia State University. Charlotte Alexander says she and her colleague were interested in analyzing every federal case where a worker is described as an employee or an independent contractor.

Beyond her research, Alexander also wanted to make the data she used available to the public. “If we used LexisNexis or Westlaw, [the data] would only be able to be used in that discreet research project,” she says, explaining that this was why she teamed up with Lissner and the Free Law Project.

With this expanded archive, anyone can access to judges’ decisions without the “restrictive terms and conditions” of for-profit, legal research vendors, explains Alexander.

These new documents were added to the already growing RECAP archive operated by the Free Law Project, which now boasts over 20 million documents from 1.8 million cases on its website. An article from 2015 noted that RECAP had collected 3.2 million documents of the potential 1 billion in PACER at that time.

Alexander and her research partner are working through the documents for their study.

“We’re still assessing how comprehensive the written reports are,” she says. “There still may be holes, but this is a giant step forward in terms of access.”

Updated at 11:39 a.m. to correct style in second paragraph.

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