Court records are an invaluable and oftentimes necessary resource. Whether you are involved in a legal dispute, need background information about a business or individual or have some other purpose, understanding how to find and access court records is crucial. Although each court maintains a slightly different system for record maintenance, management and public access, there are common aspects to these systems.
List the records you seek. Determine the approximate date when the records were made a part of the files maintained by the court. Records in different time frames are maintained in alternate ways in the typical clerk of the court's office.
Determine what the clerk of the court has available in the way of computerised and online access to court records. While you will not find it easy to be able to access actual documents online unless you are a licensed attorney, registered with a particular court clerk to obtain materials in this manner, you should at least be able to access a listing of records in a particular case. Many courts allow online access to a listing of records in this matter going back at least 10 years. However, most do not have record listings maintained online going back much beyond 15 years. The surest way to determine what a court has available is to go to the online website for the courthouse. If this information is available online, there will be a link through which the public can access court record information.
Understand that online you may only access a list of court records and not obtain a full view of the documents themselves. You go to the court clerk's office in person to retrieve hard copies of these items after you identify them online. Again, in some jurisdictions only attorneys can obtain the actual documents themselves over the Internet.
Take advantage of privately operated court record systems as well. Lexisnexis.com is the system used by legal professionals most often. The service does charge a fee for use.
Take your list to the clerk of the court . Some clerks now have automated systems with computer terminals through which you make your records requests. Other court clerks will have you complete records request forms. If the records you are seeking are fairly current, you may get them the same day. If the records are older, there will be a waiting period before you will be able to receive them, the time of which varies on a variety of factors. Therefore, you need to plan accordingly. You will pay for any duplication costs. If more than minimal staff time is involved in obtaining and assembling the records, you will be charged for that as well. There are cost and fee waivers available if you are indigent.
Go to the clerk of the court directly if the judicial system in question lacks online record access. Many courthouses that lack online access have computer access through public terminals at the clerks' offices that serve the same function.
Narrow down case identification information if you are dealing with records that are not recent. To be able to retrieve older records, you need to know the name of at least one of the parties and the approximate time frame in which the case pended before the court.
If you have scant information about the case of interest, file a more generalised records request, which may need to come in the form of an "open records" request. This type of request engages a member of the staff from the clerk's office to research case files for you. You will need to pay for this service and likely will have to post at least a partial payment or deposit, if not the entire anticipated fee, up front.
Obtain permission by order of the court to obtain any sealed records. You likely will not gain access to sealed records unless you demonstrate a compelling legal need to obtain those documents. In some instances, the records should not have been sealed in the first instance. You may be able to access these documents upon demonstrating that they should be unsealed.
Consider engaging the assistance of a court records service, in business to find court records for individuals and businesses. You will need to pay the service's fee.
Judicial systems have guidelines that purge and destroy certain types of records within established time frames. Therefore, you need to be aware the possibility that the records which you seek may no longer exist.