Organization of Court Records
Understanding the way court records are organized is a very important first step in your court records search. Unfortunately, the systems for the organization of court records are rarely standardized, making them highly variable from court to court. This can complicate your court records search because you may need to contact multiple courts in the course of your case records search, but there is no guarantee that these courts will organize their records the same way.
Basics of Court Record Organization
There are, however, a few aspects of court records organization that you can expect to remain consistent from court to court. A unique Case Number, for example, is assigned to each case when it is first filed with the court. These numbers are the primary method of indexing court records because courts store all records by their case number.
Knowing (or being knowing how to find) your applicable case number will significantly expedite your court records search. However, don't expect the numbering system to be the same for every court you encounter. This is where the lack of standardization in the organization of court records can become apparent. For more information, please see our overview of Case Numbering.
You can also expect all courts to utilize files called Docket Sheets. These Court Dockets contain the case history from initial filing to the case's current status. Court dockets are where you'll find information like the names of the involved parties or the listing of documents filed in the case. Again, while you can always expect courts to organize their records with some kind of docket sheet, you cannot expect the format of these sheets to remain consistent from court to court.
Computerization of Court Records
These days, most courts use a computer system for organizing their records. Here, the docket sheet data is entered into a computer system. Actual case documents are never kept on the computer and are available only by contacting the court where the case records are located. If a computer index is available, always use it. Computer systems will allow for a more comprehensive search than using manual records because it can automatically cross-reference any given information such as the names of the plaintiff or defendant or the case number.
NOTE: Court dockets from cases closed before computerization are generally not in the computer system. For cases closed pre-computerization, you will likely need to review summary case information on mediums like microfilm, microfiche or even index cards.
Again, because there is little standardization in the organization of court records, computer system indexing may vary from court to court. For example, in some districts multiple courts may be linked together via one computer system. In other districts the courts are not linked together so you must take extra care in determining which courts to search.