So which provides better results for
locating and obtaining court case dockets, portals or databases? It
often depends on your goal, deadline, budget and skills as a
researcher. As with most online research, accessing several sources
is often required to obtain the best results.
Almost all federal district courts are now
utilizing the federal judiciary's CM/ECF
system, which can be easily accessed with a PACER account. This
system provides public access to each court's
docket database, and includes document images and electronic filing.
Currently there are over 27 million civil, criminal and bankruptcy
cases on CM/ECF, with access to federal appellate courts coming
soon. In addition, researchers can also access a nationwide case
listing database through the PACER
Party/Case Index. While these databases are inexpensive, easy to
use, and improve slightly with each new release, from an expert
researcher's point of view their search
capabilities are limited.
and scope of state, county and local court dockets,
as well as case summary information online
varies greatly. Each jurisdiction has its own rules and restrictions
that determine what shall be deemed public or private and how the
data may be used. For example, some courts allow public access, but
do not allow commercial vendors to aggregate and resell
the data. Also, since so many different
state courts use different docket formats and methods of producing
case data, it can be difficult and time consuming for commercial
docket data aggregators to add jurisdictions to their collections.
With this in mind, it is likely that a good docket portal may
contain access to more courts than a commercial database provider.
However, state courts may require the creation of individual
accounts to access their dockets, which can initially slow down your
Updated Case Data
Since a portal simply links directly to each
court's public access
Web site, the frequency of case
information updates depends on each
court's procedures. For example, federal
district CM/ECF court data is live. After a docket entry is made by
a court clerk or an attorney, it appears online
almost instantly. But many state, county and local courts
warn that their Web dockets should not be
relied on and are not updated daily. It is important to investigate
how often a court's case data is updated
if you are checking their site regularly with the purpose of
monitoring a case's activity.
When searching for case dockets using a database, it's
important to know the depth and breadth of the data collection for
which you are searching. If a database is incomplete or has not been
updated properly, you will not get accurate results. Sometimes
locating a docket that has not been updated in many months may be
useful, while other times it is not. Often these services allow you
to search their internal database to locate a case, and then allow
you to access an updated docket immediately from the court's
database. However, if a court only updates its data weekly, and you
are using a commercial database to check a docket daily, you are
wasting your money.
Docket Formatting and Content
Federal district court dockets are generally
straight forward, uniform and relatively easy to interpret. These
dockets continue to become more uniform every day thanks to CM/ECF's
electronic case filing procedures.
state court dockets can be difficult to read. Also, the information
they contain, and how it is presented, varies significantly. Some
contain only basic case information, or a listing of filing fees
paid. Some contain motion information, disposition, clerk's
entries and document images. Each court is different, and
interpreting their version of a "docket"
can be difficult depending on your experience with the
jurisdiction and familiarity with court case dockets in general.
While often the appearance, content and formatting of state court
dockets is different from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, there are
exceptions. Some states utilize a uniform statewide case information
database, and some court databases have identical user interfaces
because their case management systems were built by the same
collect case information and present case dockets with a somewhat
uniform format and add additional information and embedded links.
For example, they may add value to their
dockets by consolidating information, adding useful narrative, links
to law firm information, case cites and researcher assisted document
While there are only a few good case
information portals on the Web, you
generally get what you pay for. Free public record portals are
generally updated less often than pay sites, contain broken or stale
links, will not be comprehensive, and display distracting ads. Fee-based
portals generally offer more detailed information and a professional
appearance, charge inexpensive monthly or annual subscription fees,
and provide better results for serious researchers.
Commercial databases attempt to provide the best user interface and
include useful services that public access court docket databases do
not. The additional added value of these databases can be seen in
features such as their ability to provide full text docket
searching, automated case monitoring for existing and new cases, and
customized case data reports.
Look For in a
While the ability to look up your neighbor's
dog tag license may be useful on occasion,
you do not want to waste time searching through an over-inclusive
list of public record database links. If you have to sort through
too many unhelpful links, the value of the portal is significantly
If you find court links are often broken, misdirect you, or
only direct you to court homepages, you are wasting valuable
research time. New publicly available court case databases are
constantly becoming available online. If a portal does not routinely
add new links to their collection, it is not comprehensive.
Cost. A good portal will definitely
save you time and money when searching for case information. Portals
are utilized by small firms to meet inexpensively their research
needs, without the pressure of negotiating large expensive contracts
with mega legal service companies. Mid-sized and large firms use
portals to obtain the fastest direct access to case dockets,
enabling them to bill their time more efficiently to their clients.
What To Look
For in a Good
Fast Search Results and Current Dockets
That Are Easily Updated.
Since you're paying a premium
price, your search results should be provided quickly, and the case
information should be useful. If the data you receive is too often
outdated or cannot be updated easily, look for a better database.
Excellent User Interface.
One of the primary reasons to use a vendor database is to
save time and avoid the aggravation learning each court's
access requirements and idiosyncrasies. A commercial database's
user interface should be clean, intuitive, and should speed up your
research, not slow it down.
Search Capabilities, Case Monitoring, and Other Value-Added
Services. A good database will allow
you to search the full text of the
dockets, or by any combination of fields such as plaintiff,
defendant, judge, date filed, law firm, etc. Case monitoring needs
to be flexible, reliable and it should be clear as to what exactly
has been updated on a docket, and when the update occurred. If a
database is integrated with links to other related information,
these links should be useful and functioning. If researcher
assistance is offered for document retrieval, it's
pricing and quality should meet or exceed your expectations. Also,
the ability to search multiple court jurisdictions simultaneously
can be helpful.
To locate comprehensive online dockets in
all available jurisdictions, researchers should have convenient
access to both quality portals and databases to obtain the best
results. Often when used in conjunction, portals and databases
compliment each other and together provide the most thorough
research results. The service that produces the best results for you
generally depends upon your specific needs, and the tasks you need
to accomplish. For example, to locate quickly and inexpensively
basic recent case information, a portal is probably a better choice
than a database. But to conduct full text and other advanced
metadata searching, using a more expensive commercial database is
required. The key is to learn which docket portal and database
vendors are the best for your specific purposes, how properly to
maintain your accounts and relationships with the providers, and how
to make full use of their strengths and abilities.
© 2006 Paul Bush all rights reserved.