One of the greatest things about the modern practice of law is the instant accessibility of needed information. This is especially true when it comes to accessing court records. Perhaps you’re interested in the way an opposing attorney has briefed an issue in a previous case. Maybe you want to determine how many times an opposing party has been sued for claims similar to the ones at issue in your current lawsuit. In either case, with a little internet savvy, you can have that information at your fingertips in no time at all.
In the past, that information was just as important to attorneys and other legal professionals as it is today. Back then, however, you had to send a staff member down to the courthouse, hope they had sufficient research skills to sniff out the information you needed, wait for them to have the clerk pull physical files for copying, and wait some more while they drove that information back to the office for your review. And if the information you needed was located in another county or state? Well, the wait was just that much longer. The whole process could also become prohibitively expensive.
Fortunately, those days are over. Today, there are a plethora of both paid and free internet sites where you can obtain all the records you can dream up in a relatively short period of time. Here are some of our favorite sites for accessing case records.
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These days, anyone involved in federal litigation has knowledge of PACER. The acronym stands for Public Access to Court Electronic Records. Using this service, which is provided by the Federal Judiciary, a person can find all sorts of case and docket information. Importantly, the site allows registered users to find information about district court cases, appellate court cases, and bankruptcy cases that are (or have been) adjudicated in all 50 states.
One of the best things about PACER is that a “subset of information from each case is transferred to the PACER Case Locator service each night.” (Emphasis added.) Searches for party and docket information are free on PACER. If you want to access case documents, that will cost you $0.10 per page, but the price for any single document is capped at $3.00. Moreover, if you spend less than $15 on PACER documents in a quarter, the Federal Judiciary will waive your fees.
#2: State Court websites
If you’re seeking information about cases filed in a state court, it’s best to begin by searching for the website of the court you’re interested in. By way of example, we did a purposely vague search for “Orange County, California court cases.” That quickly provided the link for The Superior Court of California for the County of Orange. From the homepage, it was easy to find the link for online case access. That page, in turn, provides links for all types of cases, including those from civil, criminal, family, and probate courts.
As with PACER, there is a modest fee if you want to download actual documents, but you can access information about parties, attorneys, case type, and docket entries for free. Although state court websites currently vary in availability and sophistication, more and more courts are coming online every day. If you want to find out if a state court you’re interested in is online, you can check this database provided by the National Center for State Courts.
#3: Google Scholar
If you’re looking for information on how certain courts have treated a particular issue, there’s almost no better resource than Google Scholar. The site allows you to search for two things: (a) articles; and (b) case law. If you decide to perform a case law search, you can choose exactly which courts you’re interested in. The site houses appellate and supreme court decisions from all 50 states.
It also provides access to rulings and opinions from all federal district courts, bankruptcy courts, appellate courts, and the United States Supreme Court. Importantly, you can run a search in selected jurisdictions, or you can run a search in every court in the land. Best of all, the site is completely free.
#4: Case research services
Notwithstanding your best efforts, there are times when you just can’t seem to find what you’re looking for using online resources. Often, this is because a court simply hasn’t made the document you need available via the internet. Based on Murphy’s Law, this usually happens when you have the very least amount of time to deal with a complicated research problem.
In these situations, it’s best to turn to the pros. One Legal, for example, offers comprehensive court research and document retrieval services that can get you those documents that are simply inaccessible online. In these instances, we have court runners available in all 50 states who will go to the courthouse, get the documents you need using old-school methods, and deliver them to your inbox in no time at all. The good news is, you still don’t need to leave your desk in order to quickly have electronic access to the information you need.
If you haven’t tried accessing online court information recently, give yourself an hour or two to play around. You might be surprised at the abundance of useful information that exists just beyond your fingertips.