Most people have never put much thought into the amount of information that local courthouses maintain in both physical and digital formats. The reality is that courts are required to keep records and provide access to them at relatively low cost to the general public except in certain circumstances.
- Public Records
- New York
- Digital database of official public records requests
- Background checks and criminal records
- How journalists use public records to keep government accountable
- What is the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and why is it important?
- Newspapers provide a public record of our history
What are court records?
Defined in the simplest terms, court records are data maintained by judicial venues to document specific events that ensue during legal proceedings conducted therein. Some examples are written motions, legal briefs, pleadings (i.e., complaints and answers), transcripts of witness testimony and exhibits entered as evidence during trials or formal hearings.
What kind of information is available?
The specific content of court records can be very different and mainly depends on whether the case was a civil or a criminal matter. Most civil cases involve private disputes over money or valuable legal rights such as property ownership, child custody or visitation and constitutional violations. Therefore, civil court records can reveal information about assets, familial relationships and similar details.
By contrast, criminal cases always involve a government entity that prosecuted a defendant who allegedly committed some kind of crime. As such, criminal court records can reveal prior arrests, convictions, sentences and related data.
Who commonly requests court records and why?
Since court documents are compiled and maintained by official sources, such records are considered very reliable. Here are four parties with very different motivations that commonly request court documents as follows:
- Prospective employers.
- Many companies screen job applicants by conducting background checks from court files that may reveal prior criminal convictions or financial irresponsibility, as evidenced by civil liens, judgments or wage garnishments.
- Police investigators.
- Detectives often check suspects’ criminal histories during crime investigations.
- It would be difficult for attorneys to do their jobs without accessing court records.
- Journalists and the news media
- The news media often uses court documents to report on newsworthy people, companies and organizations. Some examples are high profile divorces, company acquisitions and criminal activities of celebrities.
Private investigators and individuals also use court information for purposes such as skip-tracing to find parents who owe back child support or for genealogy research.
How to access court documents?
There are several different ways to obtain court records. But the best source and most suitable method is highly case-specific. In general, records from lower courts in smaller areas must be requested in person and are issued in paper form. While some private vendors offer paid online access to records from lower courts in smaller areas, only Court Clerks can issue certified copies of any document(s) on file.
PACER can drastically speed up the pace of a court records search
PACER is an acronym for the ‘Public Access to Court Electronic Records’ online system that provides centralized access to U.S. Federal Court records dated since 1999. Individual courts maintain separate databases that contain abstracted data from each case and every database has a different URL that’s unique to each jurisdiction. PACER can find case numbers and dockets from federal bankruptcy, trial, or appellate courts and locate courts by geographic region.
In 2013, it was estimated that there were more than 500 million .pdf documents available for online viewing and downloading via PACER. Although new users must register and provide credit card or checking account details, PACER waives all usage fees totaling less than $15 USD per 3-month quarter. PACER is by far the best way to conduct legal research at little or no cost.