Judiciary Should Take Further Steps to Make Bankruptcy Data More Accessible

GAO-09-28: Published: Dec 18, 2008. Publicly Released: Jan 21, 2009.

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There have been long-standing questions about a lack of comprehensive and reliable information on consumer bankruptcies. The Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act of 2005 (Bankruptcy Reform Act) required the federal judiciary's Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts (AOUSC) to collect and report certain additional bankruptcy statistics and required the U.S. Trustee Program, which oversees bankruptcy case administration, to develop uniform final reports that provide certain specified data about each case. GAO was asked to examine the (1) availability and accessibility of data from the personal bankruptcy system and (2) potential benefits and limitations of the new data requirements of the Bankruptcy Reform Act in addressing these issues. GAO examined bankruptcy data systems and obtained documentation and interviewed staff from AOUSC, bankruptcy courts, and the Trustee Program; groups representing consumers and creditors; data providers; and academic researchers and other stakeholders.

There are limitations to the availability, accuracy, and accessibility of data on consumer bankruptcies. AOUSC publishes certain aggregate statistics related to the numbers of filings, but few data are available on the causes of bankruptcy and the characteristics of bankruptcy filers. Studies show that the information in the bankruptcy case files is not always accurate because much of it is self-reported by debtors who frequently make errors, although these data are sufficiently reliable for the purposes of initiating a bankruptcy case. Bankruptcy case files are publicly accessible through the Public Access to Court Electronic Records system, but not in a format that allows the data they hold to be easily extracted and used for research or analysis. Another system, the U.S. Party/Case Index, was designed for nationwide searches for individual cases; while it serves that purpose, its search parameters are limited and the output does not include much of the data held in the system. Several factors create challenges to expanding data on consumer bankruptcies--most notably, privacy and security concerns related to facilitating public access to the highly personal data contained in bankruptcy files. The federal judiciary also has noted that collection of demographic and other additional data is not its mission and would require further resources. Nonetheless, a range of bankruptcy stakeholders, including some judges, researchers, and U.S. Trustee Program staff, have suggested that the judiciary identify and implement practicable ways to improve public access to data that already exist in its data systems, which could facilitate scholarly research and the formulation of bankruptcy policy and legislation. While the data requirements of the Bankruptcy Reform Act are a step toward making more information on consumer bankruptcies available, their value is likely to be limited. The new annual statistics will provide some additional information that may be helpful in identifying differences in bankruptcy cases across judicial districts. In addition, the uniform final reports required by the act will standardize the data in the reports and assist the U.S. Trustee Program in overseeing case administration. However, for several reasons the statistics required under the act are likely to be of limited value. For example, many of the statistics are relatively narrow in scope and were not intended to provide certain key information, such as the causes of bankruptcy and the demographic characteristics of filers. Further, the AOUSC data are provided as aggregated statistics--rather than data on individual cases--which limits the extent to which they can be analyzed. As such, a variety of stakeholders in the bankruptcy process told us that the underlying case-level data used to generate the statistics could be useful if made publicly available as a data set. AOUSC currently has no plans to provide public access to these case-level data, in part, officials say, because they first need to identify and address privacy and security issues. GAO acknowledges the importance of those issues, but believes that better access to bankruptcy data already held in the judiciary's data systems--such as these case-level data--would allow external parties to assess the data's reliability and limitations and could facilitate empirical research and the formulation of bankruptcy policy.

Recommendation for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In March 2010, the AOUSC announced modifications to PACER, its electronic system that provides public online access to case and docket information from bankruptcy courts. As we recommended, the system allows for enhanced search and display capabilities of data that reside in what previously was known as the U.S. Party/Case Index. For example, the public can (1) request lists of cases for a specified date range by court type; (2) conduct searches based on chapter, discharge date and dismissal date for bankruptcy cases; and (3) choose display formats, including HTML, delimited text, and XML which can be imported to other programs for analysis.

    Recommendation: To help provide additional information on consumer bankruptcies useful to policy makers and others, the Director of AOUSC should expeditiously identify and implement--subject to appropriate privacy and security safeguards--measures to further improve public accessibility to those bankruptcy data that AOUSC already maintains in its information systems. For example, AOUSC might consider whether it would be practical to expand the search and output capability of the U.S. Party/Case Index. AOUSC also might explore appropriate options for releasing at least some of the case-level data used to generate the Bankruptcy Reform Act statistics.

    Agency Affected: Administrative Office of the United States Courts


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