How to Find Case Records: A Refresher

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Here at CourtReference, we get a lot of questions about court records. People want to know how to go about looking up a divorce record, doing a criminal background check, or looking up a will from the 1800’s.

Of course anyone can just Google “court records” to start the ball rolling. But if Google knows your location (and they do, they do!), the top search results will be for your area – and most of the rest will be for commercial websites that charge a fee to search. That’s why most of our questions are about how to find court records without paying a fee.

The answer depends on where the records are located. Many court systems have put their records online, and allow you to search them for free. Others charge a fee to search their online records, and some of those require registration and a subscription. Still others have no online records; the paper records can be searched in person at the courthouse for free, although you would have to pay copying charges if you want to take a copy home.

Some states’ online court record searches include all of the courts in a particular state; others include some but not all courts in the state (e.g. all Circuit and District court cases, but no Municipal Court cases); still others include records from only one level of the court system. In other states, records are only maintained at the county level; some counties may have all of their records online, while other counties have only some – or none at all.

To borrow a saying from another profession, it’s all about “location, location, location.” First you need to know where the records are kept, and then you need to find out if those records are available online for free, for a fee, or not at all. Note that they are always free at the courthouse, except for the cost of copies – and with some exceptions for types of court records that are restricted for their subjects’ safety, such as many juvenile records and nearly all records of protective orders.

CourtReference has a wealth of information about courts, such as dockets and calendars, opinions, self-help resources, sources of legal help, forms, and online fine payment sites. But CourtReference’s original purpose was to help people find court records. That’s why we include contact information for all trial courts in the U.S.,  so people can call or visit the courthouse to inquire about and access court records.

It’s also why we list online record searches at the top of our “Online Resources” page for each court. For example, check out our page for Berkshire County, MA to see contact information for Berkshire Superior Court, and then click the “Online Resources” link under that court to find related resources, with “Searching Case Records” links at the top of the list.

It’s also why “Search Court Case Records” is the first choice in our “Find court resources by category” menu for each state. For example, check out our California Courts Guide and then go to the “Find court resources by county” drop-down menu and select “Search Court Case Records” for links to all case record searches in CA.

Finally, the importance of location is why we have our information organized by state and then by county. Yes, finding free court records is complicated, but we help by checking every state trial court to see if it has a record search, and then linking it for you. We also help by providing tips in this very blog. Check out Court Records Basics (the best overview!), About Criminal Records and Where to Find Them, Using Court Records for Background Investigations, Jurisdiction and Court Records, and our most recent roundup of Misconceptions About Court Records Availability.

We even highlight specific state issues, such as when Virginia provides online access to its court records, or when New Hampshire decides not to (and six years later, NH still doesn’t have online court records!). CourtReference even finds paid record search services that are provided by the courts. That may not be what people are looking for, but when it’s the only option, we link to it – and we tell you that it’s a paid search. For example, nearly all record searches provided by Louisiana courts require payment; see how we note that here. Some court systems charge a fee to search their own records, because it costs them money to maintain the online system. Yes, court records are supposed to be free public records, and the paper copies at the courthouse are – but there is no requirement that public records be free online.

It’s obvious that looking up court records takes some work. That’s why paid commercial services exist. Not only do they have to maintain their online system, they have to collect the court records in the first place. If you don’t have time to search yourself, you can use a commercial service. Some of them even advertise on CourtReference. Look at any CourtReference state page – e.g. Montana – and you’ll see links labeled “Advertising” or “AdChoices” near the top of the page, at the bottom, and along the left side. Those links will take you to a commercial site that offers court record searches for a fee. If you don’t have time to do the search yourself, give them a click.

But please bear in mind that when you click one of our advertiser’s lnks, you are then doing business with that company. CourtReference can’t help you with any issues you may have with their services. We get many comments from people who click our “Contact Us” link  (it’s at the top of every CourtReference page) and ask about a service they have paid for, or are thinking about paying for. If that service is provided by a court or government agency, you need to contact the court or agency. If the service is provided by one of our advertisers, you need to contact the advertisers. We make that easy: links to them are provided, under the heading “Third-Party Services” on the right side of our “Contact Us” page.

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