What exactly are they?
Upon filing a case, court administrative staff maintains chronological records of documents created and filed by the plaintiff, the defendant, their attorney, and even the presiding judge. The collection of these documents makes up a court record on a case. These records are public records under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA); any person or entity may inspect court records. States have their own public record laws expanding access to public records created within their jurisdictions. In several cases, you do not need a reason to request certain court records or meet some eligibility requirements, unless a court order or statute removed the record from public access.
What information do court records contain?
The information in a court record varies with the nature of the case. Criminal court records will contain everything from the arrest report to digital copies of evidence. On the other hand, the contents of civil court records are even broader depending on whether the case involves bankruptcy, divorce, or even traffic infraction. Regardless, all court records will have the following information in common:
- Name of the litigants
- Name of the representing attorneys
- Transcript of proceedings
- Final judgment
- The name of the presiding judge
How can I find court records?
Most requesters start at the court where the case was filed. But are in-person requests that effective? Courts in the United States process an average of 102.4 million cases every year, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. This caseload comes to about 11,650 cases filed per hour. As record custodians, clerks must track all actions and documents created or filed in each case and make these accounts available to the public. However, for many reasons obtaining court records from the courthouse is not often convenient for either the custodian or you, the requester.
Without a doubt, the sheer volume of records to track and organize must be imposing – even for the clerk of a small county court. To ease this burden, the state judiciaries have transitioned to electronic repositories for court documents, scanning physical copies of documents created or filed in a case unto a public domain. The United States even pools court records from local jurisdictions into one central database, the Public Access to Electronic Court Records (PACER) system.
There are several advantages to using online repositories. The first is flexibility and the capacity to process thousands of queries at the same time. What is more? You do not have to provide the same case information that you would have provided at the clerk’s office. Using names of the parties involved, date of filing, and location of the record, a requester can adjust search results for the court record of interest. The case number, if known, is helpful to narrow down the search but unnecessary to find a record of interest.
Furthermore, research for records often take hours due to the physical filing system at courthouses, pending requests for other court records, and limited staff to process the requests. With the right guide and using the same case information, you can access the same court documents at a fraction of the time and from the repose of their homes or workplace. The marginal cost of accessing records online also reduces considerably compared to a visit to the courthouse.
A drawback of online databases, however, is record availability. While physical records of cases are typically updated as the case progresses, the availability of online copies tends to be slower. Also, not all counties provide access to court records online. To bypass this restriction, you may consider third-party databases that also make court records available online. These service providers collect aggregate data from courts and make them available for interested requesters.
In any way, understanding a jurisdiction’s protocols for accessing court records is the key to any successful request.