This material is adapted from an update to the CCJ/COSA Guidelines and is presented here to highlight general information about access to court records. While public access rules and exceptions are different for every state, there are several broad concepts that generally apply to all courts.
1. What are court records?
Court records include any document, information, exhibit, or other thing filed in a court case by the parties or their lawyers. Examples of court records include complaints, petitions, answers, motions, transcripts, calendars, minutes of a court proceeding, docket entries, court orders, decrees and judgments.
Court records also include documents, court schedules and other materials produced by the court. Many courts use a computerized case management system that keep records of case activity and other information related to cases.
2. What court records are open to the public?
Most court records are generally open to the public. Anyone may ask to see a court record for both pending and finished cases. There are some limits on public access that may exist due to federal or state law or a court order, but most information provided to a court is open to the public.
The person filing a document in court must make sure that the proper procedure is followed to protect sensitive personal information. Before filing a document with sensitive personal information, the protections offered by the court should be reviewed. Clerks and judges will not check documents to make sure that personal information is properly protected. Many courts have special cover sheets or other forms that can be used to protect private information from public access.
Some types of information may be protected from public access, including Social Security Numbers, Driver’s License Numbers, Federal income or business tax returns, medical records, health care information, and names and addresses of jurors, victims, or witnesses. There are also certain types of cases with records that are not available to the public. Cases often protected from public access include adoption cases, mental health cases, juvenile dependency cases and termination of parental rights.
In addition to certain types of information and certain types of cases, there are other individual cases protected from public access if a judge orders that some or all of the court records are sealed. Anyone may ask that public access to court records be limited, but limits on public access are rare and generally reserved for circumstances where public access might cause serious harm to a party or other individual.
Records that are closed to the public require a court order to allow access. Anyone can ask for access to restricted information in a court record but access will not always be granted. Depending on the rules of the court, either a judge, court clerk or other court administrator will review the request and decide if access is allowed.
3. What are online court records?
Many court websites make various amounts of case information available online. Case information is provided as a public service to give a general understanding about what information may exist in the official records of a court. While the courts make very effort to provide accurate and current information, there may be some inaccurate or outdated information in online case records. If the official record of the court differs from the online records, the official record should be relied upon, not the online information.
Even if online case information offered by a court is limited, online services can be valuable tools for finding case records. Once basic information is obtained about the location of the court and other identifying features about the case, the proper court can be contacted to quickly confirm the information and obtain official court records.
4. Where can I find online court records?
Links to online record search services provided by trial courts are available in the searchable database maintained by CourtReference.com. Many courts offer some level of online access to case information and many courts are in the process of developing or expanding their online services.
Generally, when states offer access to online court records, there is at least some explanation offered on the court website about the scope of available records. Many courts explain the available case information, which may include date ranges, certain types of documents and or certain types of information. Many courts are currently in the process of adding case information to their internet services and are expanding their databases to include earlier cases, case documents and document images. The development of online access to court records varies by court and by state, and some courts currently only have basic website services offering limited access to case information.
Typically, online court record websites offer access to information for pending cases and cases going back several years. Some states offer case information going back decades. The amount of available information varies by court and should be expected to increase over time in most states.
The Conference of Chief Justices (CCJ) and Conference of State Court Administrators (COSCA) have endorsed a model policy related to several aspects of access to court records. The CCJ/COSCA Guidelines address the needs of courts to educate the public, issues specific to family law and juvenile cases, and issues related to training court clerks. The original CCJ/COSCA Guidelines were developed with the assistance of several organizations, including the National Center for State Courts (NCSC), the Justice Management Institute (JMI) and the State Justice Institute (SJI). The model policy is offered to state courts so courts can adapt the information to their local rules and inform the public about important information related to court records access. See “Public Access to Court Records: Implementing the CCJ/COSCA Guidelines Final Project Report,” by Alan Carlson, President, Justice Management Institute and Martha Wade Steketee, National Center for State Courts, October 15, 2005. http://www.courtaccess.org/modelpolicy/PublicAccessFinalReport%20.pdf