How to Get Court Records Online for Free

How to Get Court Records Online for Free

Court records are an important source of information about judicial proceedings, legal decisions, and case outcomes. These records are accessible to the public, but the process of obtaining them can be challenging. Fortunately, many courts now offer online access to court records, making it easier to search for and obtain the records you need. This article will provide you with step-by-step instructions on how to get court records online for free.

Understanding Court Records and Why They Matter

Before detailing how to locate court papers from decades ago, what even counts as a court record? Court records encompass all the paperwork produced and managed by courts during legal proceedings and processes. This includes both civil and criminal cases.

Civil examples involve disputes between people or organizations over issues like divorce, estate settlement, foreclosures, personal injury lawsuits, and small claims cases. Criminal records stem from charges against an individual by the government for committing an illegal act punishable by imprisonment like theft, assault, or drunk driving.

But court documents include more than just final rulings. They incorporate case filings like motions and petitions, hearing transcripts, evidence like deposition statements, judicial orders made during the case, and more. Court records also encompass documents related to family courts (adoptions, custody battles, etc.), traffic court appeals, and probate courts overseeing wills and estates.

These records matter because they leave a paper trail recounting significant moments in both national history (think famous Supreme Court cases) as well as your own family line. Plus, the documents include juicy tidbits shedding light on how your ancestors lived and died.

Reasons for Accessing Court Records

There are many reasons why you might want to access court records. Some common reasons include:

  • Verifying legal cases against individuals or organizations
  • Researching legal history
  • Understanding the judicial process
  • Checking the status of a case
  • Preparing for a legal case

Types of Court Records

There are several types of court records that you might want to access. The most common types include:

Civil Court Records

On the civil side, court records provide background on financial disputes and critical life events. Probate files after someone’s passing offer rich detail about what possessions a person owned while estate court authorizations reveal relationships between heirs. Forhouse historians, old deed transfers track who occupied a property long ago.

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Meanwhile, personal injury and medical malpractice lawsuits give insights into physical or emotional traumas a relative endured. If family lore discussed a contentious divorce case that split apart relatives, court papers include divorce petitions, asset division agreements, restraining orders and custody paperwork.

Criminal Court Records

Criminal cases highlight relatives who may have had legal troubles or stints behind bars that your family kept mum about for generations. Case files feature arrest details, booking photos, police incident reports, bail terms and attorney names. For serious criminal allegations, look for case evidence like investigator notes, forensic test results, jury selection surveys and witness statements.

You can also find records connected to appeals processes. For instance, 19th century US Western Territories court records chroniclesome early moments in Native American history from indigenous perspectives.

Family Court Records

Beyond marriages or divorces, court clerk repositories house adoption proceedings if you or other relatives joined the family tree non-biologically. For clues on an ancestor’s parenthood timeline, seek guardianship documents appointing caretakers for children after a debilitating injury or death. Consult child support orders to track down a wandering father as well. Estate guardianship papers also help follow decision-making if a relative became incapacitated later in life.

bankruptcy Court Records

Don’t forget about bankruptcy filings indicating past unpaid debts haunting your forefathers. Coroners’ inquests rule on causes of death, especially for unusual, untimely or violent ends. Freed slave records connect African Americans to their first owners. Naturalization and citizenship paperwork traces immigrant journeys as newcomers became Americans.

Consult court martial tribunals for military members. Pore over old published case law volumes in law library stacks to uncover legal proceedings significant in their era. With so many court records to consider, where should you start searching?

how to find old court records online for free

Now that you understand what court records are and why you might need them, let’s take a look at how to get court records online for free.

Using Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER)

Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER) is a service that allows you to access federal court records online. While there is a fee for using PACER, you can access certain documents for free, such as opinions and orders. To use PACER, you will need to create an account and provide some basic information, such as your name and address. Once you have an account, you can search for and access court records online.

Using Free Online Databases

There are several free online databases that you can use to access court records. Some popular ones include:

  • Court Listener: A free legal research website that provides access to millions of court opinions and filings.
  • Justia : A legal website that provides free access to federal and state court cases, codes, and regulations.
  • FindLaw: A legal website that provides free access to federal and state court cases, legal forms, and articles.
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To use these databases, simply search for the court records you need by case number, party name, or keyword. Keep in mind that not all court records are available online, and some may require a fee to access.

Requesting Court Records by Mail or in Person

If you are unable to access court records online, you can request them by mail or in person. To do so, you will need to contact the court where the case was heard and request a copy of the record. You may be required to pay a fee and provide some basic information, such as your name and address. Once your request is processed, the court will send you a copy of the record.

Check State Court Websites

For statewide criminal background checks plus some civil, traffic and family cases, visit state court websites for records postings. The collection depths vary based on each court’s digitization efforts so try websites from multiple states related to your family tree.

Examples of State Sites

  • Alaska Court System’s CourtView
  • Idaho Supreme Court Data Repository
  • Maryland Judiciary Case Search
  • New York State Unified Court System E-Courts
  • South Carolina Judicial Department Records Search
  • Texas Courts Online Case Information
  • Washington Courts Trial Court Records

Search Genealogy Websites

Genealogy buffs indexed and uploaded searchable court documents useful for family historians. Ancestry offers paid subscriptions to access records attached to its logged family trees. However, explore these free court content hubs:

Examples of Genealogy Sites

  • FamilySearch Catalog for county probate records
  • Findmypast United States collection spanning criminal convictions to Civil War widows’ pension files
  • MyHeritage Genealogy Research Records incorporating inherited family trees
  • Open Library for published court case law volumes

Use Government Archives

From federal agencies down to tiny county municipalities, check online government data archives containing original digitized court content submitted from clerks as record copies.

Federal Government Archives

  • Library of Congress Digital Collections hosting early American court files
  • National Archives Online Public Access for federal cases like Freedmen’s Bureau rulings on former slaves
  • Founders Online via National Archives for early Supreme Court decisions

State Archives

  • Florida State Archives, Court Records online guide
  • Kentucky Digital Archives by County including circuit court disputes
  • Montana Memory Project for vigilante period court sessions
  • New Jersey Digital Legal Library hosting historical NJ cases
  • Ohio History Connection offering Supreme Court history

County Archives

Even small town courts digitize their records for public review. Most easily search court paperwork electronically on county clerk and local government sites. Can’t travel there in person? Simply contact the office directly for lookups.

Search University Library Databases

School librarians actively post unique digitized court treasures from special collections onto public access catalogue sites. Search both card catalogues and institutional repositories for court case surprises expanding daily nationwide.

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For a one-stop shop when unsure where to start looking for elusive old court paperwork on your ancestors, friends or notorious cases, consult these tactics to improve search success.

Tips for Searching Court Records Online

Searching for court records online can be a challenging task, especially if you are not familiar with the court system. Here are some tips to help make the process easier:

 Know What You’re Looking For

Get as much identifying info as possible beforehand when dealing with common names. Seek details on exact jurisdictions, date ranges and case specifics to avoid digging through irrelevant search results. If you have incomplete details, lock down knowns like locations and family associations first.

Use Creative Keyword Searches

Spark keyword ideas from case types you want plus known participant roles tied to your ancestor like “plaintiff,” “judge,” “witness,” etc. Fiddle with maiden names, wild card truncations, occupation keywords and locations. Check record group guides when available to build custom queries.

Verify Details in Multiple Places

Double check supporting details like birth years, marriage certificates, addresses, aliases or affiliations in documents you uncover. Scan cited references listing additional court cases for more insights to solidify facts.

Be Flexible in Name Spellings

Account for relative surname oddities, inconsistent first names, variant middle monikers, initials switching and inaccurate ages described in court papers. Note queries for all potential name possibilities and pinpoint further with known titles, residences, in-laws’ names or other descriptors.

Saving and Downloading Your Discovered Documents

Preserve your online investigation treasures for later reference and further review.

Screenshot Key Details

Snap pics of record snippets conveying vital information using Snip/Skitch tools for quick sharing across genealogy networks.

Save a PDF

Download full case file PDFs from court databases with downloader plugins enabling tabs of cases. Print out the bestfinds to annotate details tying individuals together.

Bookmark Records for Later

Save bookmarked links back to previous search result bundles, unique digitized collections or specific relative e-folders housing court records directly related to your kin.

    Conclusion

    Accessing court records can be a valuable tool for researching legal history, understanding the judicial process, and verifying legal cases against individuals and organizations. By following the steps outlined in this article, you can easily get court records online for free. Remember to use specific search terms, check multiple sources, and use advanced search options to find the records you need.

    FAQs

    1. Are all court records available online for free? Not all court records are available online, and some may require a fee to access. However, there are several free online databases that you can use to access court records.
    2. Can I access court records from any state? You can access court records from any state, but the process may vary depending on the court system and the type of record you are looking for.
    3. How long does it take to get court records by mail? The time it takes to get court records by mail varies depending on the court system and the volume of requests. You should expect to wait several weeks for your request to be processed and the record to be sent to you.
    4. Are court records confidential? Not all court records are confidential. Some court records, such as criminal records and divorce records, are public records and can be accessed by the public.
    5. What should I do if I can’t find the court record I need online? If you can’t find the court record you need online, you can contact the court where the case was heard and request a copy of the record. You may be required to pay a fee and provide some basic information, such as your name and address. Once your request is processed, the court will send you a copy of the record.

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