by Nicole Downing
One of the most common reasons public patrons call our reference desk is to ask about online access to North Carolina state court records. When we explain access in North Carolina, we receive one of two reactions: (1) surprise at how much is available for free online or (2) shock at how little is available for free online. There doesn’t seem to be any middle ground. People are either impressed that what they want to view is available, or they are incredibly frustrated that what they want to view is unavailable.
The most recent call to the reference desk involved the frustrated patron. This patron couldn’t understand how NC lawyers can get their jobs done with what they saw as such limited availability. Through this interaction, I started to ponder where North Carolina stood as far as access in relation to other states.
Free online access to state court dockets is incredibly varied, not just by state but also by the courts within a state. The National Center for State Courts has a collection of links to public access points for state court records, although some of the information has become out of date. Access for state courts tends to break down into three broad categories: a state court does not provide any free online access to court dockets; a state court provides free online access to court docket sheets but does not provide access to filed documents; and a state court provides free online access to court docket sheets and filed documents.
North Carolina seems to provide an above average amount of access to court records. Trial court records aren’t available online to the public, but North Carolina appellate court records have two access points. On the North Carolina Courts website, you can access docket sheets for the Supreme Court and the Court of Appeals. The North Carolina Supreme Court and Court of Appeals Electronic Filing Site and Document Library provides access to filed documents. Voluntary efiling began in 1998, so varied coverage spans from approximately 1998-present.
However, it isn’t just what you can access that varies from state to state. The usability and features of the access platforms are also very different for each court. North Carolina’s docket sheet platform and filed documents platform aren’t the most user-friendly sites. Finding the platforms can be difficult, especially for the filed documents library. With the search categories limited to party, attorney, case number, and date, a user usually needs to be searching with accurate information and attempting to locate a particular case.
It doesn’t seem that uniformity of access for state court records is in our near future. There are too many individualized concerns about access for each state, such as monetary concerns, administrative concerns, and political concerns. There are also many privacy concerns with making court records available to the public online.
From a reference standpoint, we need to have some knowledge of not only what the access is like in our state, but where we stand in relation to other states. It helps inform our interaction with patrons and our own research. I’d love to see comments about the docket access in your state! What level of access is available? What is the search platform like? How do patrons react to the access? Please share below.