Court records in the United States are within the public domain, meaning citizens have free access to them. To get free access to California court records, you need to go to the court that handled the case you're looking for, either online or in person. Not all court records are available online, nor are they always free. In most cases, there is a small service fee for accessing the full documents online or for having copies made.
Finding the Right Court
Before looking for the court documents you need, you'll first have to determine which court handled the case. The majority of cases are held in California's Superior Courts. There are 58 superior courts, one for each county in the state. If the court case you are looking for was filed in Los Angeles, for example, the records are most likely at the Los Angeles Superior Court.
In addition to the superior courts, there are six district courts of appeal, which hear cases that are being appealed after they have been in a superior court. Above this is the Supreme Court of California, the rulings of which are binding to all other California courts. You can find a listing of all of these courts at the California courts website.
Accessing the Court Records Online
Once you locate the right court, you can quickly determine whether or not its records are available online. How each court stores records and how they make them available to the public varies from one county to another. The San Diego County Superior Court allows you to search for documents and view limited information for free, such as summaries of filings and calendar events. However, there is a small fee for viewing the details of documents online.
Some Courts Charge Fees
The Los Angeles County and San Diego County Superior Courts also store records online. However, there is a fee for each search, beginning at $1 each for the first 10 searches, and increasing with multiple searches. In order to find a record, you first need to create an account and select a payment method. The website offers a variety of ways to search, including by calendar date, defendant's name or case number.
Not All Records are Online
Not all court records are accessible online. These can include recent cases, which have not yet been uploaded to the court's database, as well as very old cases that have not been digitized. Also, court records that have been sealed, like those protecting the identities of minors, would not be in the public domain and not available online.
How to Get Free Access to Court Records
To get free access to court records, you can go to the court clerk's office of the appropriate court and ask to see them. There should be no fee for this access, but you may not be able to make copies or take photographs of them. To get a copy of the records, there is usually a fee of about 50 cents per copy.
You also have the option to mail the court to request a copy of its records. In this case, send a self-addressed stamped envelope and a check along with your request. Leave the amount line in the check blank and write in the memo line, "not to exceed $30," or another appropriate amount. The clerk will fill in the correct amount for the copies.
Read More: California Court Records & Public Access to Court Case Information
A published author and professional speaker, David Weedmark has worked as a consultant for many small businesses and non-governmental organizations, including several law firms and bar associations. David has also has written hundreds of articles on legal matters and small business trends for newspapers, magazines and online publications including About.com and American Express.