Online access to court records has become increasingly common, with many courts providing electronic databases for public use.

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. 

1. PACER 

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 $30 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. 

Here’s a step-by-step guide on how you can use state court websites to access court records:

  1. Find the court’s site: Start by locating the website of the state court where the case was filed or heard. You can usually find this by searching for the name of the state court or the specific county where the case was heard.
  2. Navigate to the case search section: Once on the court’s website, look for a section dedicated to case search or online records. This section may be labeled differently depending on the court, but it’s typically located under a tab or menu option related to public access or records.
  3. Search for the case you need: Use the search tools provided to input relevant information about the case, such as the party names, case number, or date range. Some websites may offer advanced search options to narrow down your results further.
  4. Review search results: After initiating the search, the website will generate a list of cases matching your search criteria. Review the search results to identify the specific case you’re interested in.
  5. Access case details: Click on the relevant case from the search results to access more detailed information, including case summaries, docket entries, and associated documents. Some state court websites may allow you to view and download documents directly from the website, while others may require you to request access or visit the courthouse in person.
  6. Understand fees and restrictions: As mentioned, you should be aware that some state court websites may charge fees for accessing certain documents or services. Additionally, certain types of cases or documents may be restricted from public access due to privacy concerns or legal regulations.

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, Legal research platforms

Legal research platforms are essential tools for professionals and researchers seeking comprehensive access to legal information and court records.

Platforms like Westlaw, LexisNexis, and Bloomberg Law offer vast databases of case law, statutes, regulations, and legal publications from various jurisdictions.

These platforms provide powerful search capabilities, allowing users to find relevant documents efficiently using keywords, citations, or other criteria. Additionally, they offer features such as case analysis, citation checking, and legal research tools to streamline the research process.

Legal research platforms are indispensable for lawyers, paralegals, law students, and scholars conducting in-depth legal analysis, preparing cases, or staying updated on legal developments.

While subscription-based, their extensive coverage and advanced functionalities make them invaluable resources for navigating the complexities of the legal landscape.

5. 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.  

Many firms offer case research services as part of their legal practice. These services typically involve conducting in-depth research on legal cases, statutes, regulations, and other relevant materials to support their clients’ legal needs. Here are some common case research services offered by law firms:

Conclusion

The evolution of online access to court records has drastically changed how we perform legal research, making it more efficient and accessible than ever before.

Gone are the days of laborious trips to the courthouse and lengthy waits for information. With the plethora of online resources available today, legal professionals can quickly and easily access a wealth of information to support their cases.

From federal court records on PACER to state court websites and legal research platforms like Westlaw and LexisNexis, the tools available are comprehensive and powerful.

Additionally, many law firms offer case research services, further enhancing the capabilities of legal professionals to conduct thorough research and develop effective case strategies.

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