The filings in most lawsuits are public record. Exceptions exist for certain types of criminal proceedings or for cases involving minors, but for the most part, anyone can look at the court's docket and review the documents filed in a court case. All federal courts and many state courts offer online court records for a fee. Interested persons can also go directly to the courthouse or the court clerk's office and search records in person.
Lawsuits Are Generally Public Record
Civil lawsuits are generally public record. Civil proceedings are any proceedings that are not for the prosecution of a crime, such as lawsuits for personal injury and wrongful death, bankruptcy proceedings, lawsuits for breach of contract and anything else that is not criminal including divorce and family law proceedings. Criminal proceedings are also generally public record.
In civil and criminal matters, certain information may be kept confidential such as the names of parties or victims who are minors or who are victims of sexual assault. Parties to lawsuits can also request that certain sensitive records be sealed and kept private. The state's laws and rules may vary on what can be sealed and what cannot in a court proceeding.
Types of Public Information on Lawsuits
Court records are kept in what is called the docket, which is a list of all the documents filed in the case as well as text entries for proceedings like hearings that have been held and hearings that are scheduled. Court dockets online often have links on the docket to view the documents filed such as pleadings, motions, letters and other papers.
Searching Federal Court Records Online
The case's entire docket and all the documents filed (unless they're filed under seal) in federal court lawsuits are available online for cases filed after 1999. Federal cases include civil and criminal proceedings filed in federal district courts as well as appeals in the U.S. circuit courts of appeal and the United States Supreme Court. They also include bankruptcy filings and filings in the U.S. Tax Court.
District court filings, circuit courts of appeal filings and bankruptcy court filings are all available on PACER.gov or at the court's individual electronic case filing website, which can be reached through PACER. Users can search by name, case number or Social Security number nationwide.
The U.S. Tax Court allows docket searches for the public, but no one can view the actual records without registering as either a taxpayer with a pending case or as an attorney.
Read More: How to Find Public Court Records for Free Online
State Court Records
Every state has its own court system, often by county at the trial level, plus its own courts of appeals and its own supreme court. Many counties in most states have online court records searching available to the public, sometimes for free and sometimes for a fee. Some counties allow users to search for free but pay to view documents; some require payment just for a search. The public can also go directly to the court and perform records searches at the clerk's office.
Performing an internet search for the court where the case is located is a starting point to look for records. The court's website will provide contact information as well as links to online court records, if available. The National Center for State Court's website contains links to court records sites for every state.
Anyone can view public court records online by heading to the court's website if online records are available for that court, or by going to the court clerk's office to view records. The clerk's office will have records in either paper format or electronically through kiosks.
Rebecca K. McDowell is a creditors' rights attorney with a special focus on bankruptcy and insolvency. She has a B.A. in English from Albion College and a J.D. from Wayne State University Law School. She has written legal articles for Nolo and the Bankruptcy Site.