How to Read Court Records

By Contributing Writer

Most court records are available to the public. Some court records are available online. Federal courts have generally made more progress in making records available in electronic format. If the desired records are not available for free on a particular court's website, one can access the records for free in person at the office of the clerk of the court.

Viewing Federal Court Records

Visit the court's website to see what records that court makes available for free online. For instance, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit's website gives access to audio recordings of oral arguments and text of the court's decisions. The U.S. Supreme Court uploads written transcripts of oral arguments every day as well as its written decisions.

If the records you seek are not available for free on the court's website, you are also entitled to view them in person at the court. Look up the address of the court's clerk's office and visit them in person. Make sure you bring the case "caption" with you -- i.e., the full name of the case and the case number.

If you are not able or do not wish to visit the court in person, you can access records of all federal cases at PACER.com. However, you will have to create a PACER account first, and you will be charged a small fee for each document you view.

Viewing State Court Records

Visit the court's website. State courts generally do not offer as many online resources as federal courts; but if you live in a large or urban county, your local courts are likely to offer some online resources. For instance, the website of the Office of the Clerk of the Circuit Court of Cook County in Chicago allows the public to view docket reports for civil cases although the actual documents filed in the case are not available for download.

If the desired documents are not available online, you should view the records in person. If you are not an attorney, call your local courthouse and make sure they are the court that has the records you need. The local county and municipal courts will both keep separate bodies of records that will not overlap.

If the records you want are more than 10 years old, call ahead to give the clerk's office notice. They may have to retrieve the records from storage.

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