In most jurisdictions, legal opinions and court records that are public are published in paper volumes, but are increasingly available online, as well. As the Internet has grown, people turn more and more frequently to the online space as a source of research. Many courts around the world have responded by publishing at least some court records online. Most of the time, online court records are identical to paper records — that is, they include the court’s opinions and orders, and as well as any admitted evidence. Some courts take additional steps, such as digitizing sound recordings of oral arguments, offering podcasts of trials, and providing mobile phone-friendly links to cases and other documents.
Nearly all court documents are public records, which means that they are available to the public for review and research shortly after they are handed down. Exceptions include documents and files that the court declares to be confidential records, which are usually publicly recorded as “under seal.” Making court proceedings public helps the judicial system remain transparent, and keeps lawmakers accountable. Public records are also important to those engaged in legal research and tracking changes in the governing body of law. These benefits are generally enhanced through publication to the web.
There is no legal requirement in the United States, the United Kingdom, or Canada for public records to be made available online: so long as the records were available somewhere in hard copy, the “public” requirement was met. Still, many courts have elected to publish records and other court proceedings electronically. For instance, courts like the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals in the United States offer podcasts, digital recordings that can be streamed and downloaded, of trials as well as a host other of mobile-ready media, in addition to same-day updates of recent decisions.
Most online court records are published on the issuing court’s website. The court will usually publish decided opinions to the Internet at the same time as it submits the certified copy for print publication. Different jurisdictions have different restrictions on what may be published online, as well as how quickly records may appear online. The types of online court records that are available in any given place will depend chiefly on the local rules, and will also be influenced by the innovativeness of the court.
The rise of online court records has also opened many doors in legal research. Services like Canada’s “Canadian Case Law Online” program and the United State’s “Public Access to Court Electronic Records” (PACER) program are government-sponsored search programs that allow visitors to rapidly search across the spectrum of published cases in all reporting courts. The PACER program charges a nominal fee for use above a certain threshold; the Canadian service is free.
Many commercial legal research companies have also capitalized on the online availability of court records by marketing services that can synthesize results and compare holdings in real time. These sorts of services are usually capable of saving searches, sending alerts, and monitoring case progress. They frequently provide not just an opinion’s text, but also its procedural history and, in most cases, other opinions from a variety of jurisdictions that support or contradict the holding. Cross-jurisdictional research is very much a function of online court records.