Accessing Your Information

As an Of Counsel member of the Winter’s Law Group, my area of expertise and interest is in legal information while I maintain a general practice.  I can find anything you want no matter the obscurity and most of the time Google is not involved (sorry folks).  My social justice interests revolve around access to courts as well as access to court, government, and public documents.    I also think that access to those documents should be free of cost.  A great resource of this topic is the Free Law Project.

Ultimately, online access to legal case filings is certainly convenient but it hasn’t increased access for ordinary citizens but exacerbated them in many cases.  PACER, the federal case access system, is a prime example. PACER is for the most part the only way to access the court records held in the federal judiciary.  The Free Law Project is one of PACER’s most well-informed critics and also has created alternatives to a PACER only system. (this includes a breakdown of the monies earned by PACER)

I had an individual experience locating information about a year ago and thought I would discuss it here because it represents a different difficulty that happens when there are both in person and electronic access:

It took one national highway and one state parkway to reach the small two-lane road that would wind through the Appalachian Mountains and take me to the tiny courthouse in a remote county of Kentucky.  The old growth forest rose up on either side of the road.  Ancient trees wrapped in kudzu appeared like monsters beneath a blanket.  The obfuscated trees put me in mind of my current conundrum. One venerable cornerstone of our legal system, access to court documents and information, was so easily obfuscated through the tiered system of electronic and in-person access currently in place in Kentucky and many other states.  I needed one thing —  a copy of the appointment of an administrator.  The tiny courthouse was the only place to get it.

A few days earlier I had called the clerk and requested a copy of the appointment.  After locating the file and a few moments of shuffling paper the clerk questioned, “Which one?”  Without missing a beat, she continued, “this file is huge.”  Reliability required that I go and see the file myself. I wasn’t sure which pages to have the clerk certify.  Also, I didn’t want anything that might be pertinent to be missed.  Sometimes rulings are written directly onto a sheet of paper in the file and an actual order might not be drafted.  If I didn’t know about it, I couldn’t request it.   The appointment called into question the basis of the lawsuit I was defending.  Had the lawsuit been filed within one year from the date of the appointment of the administrator? Or had they missed the statute of limitations?

Kentucky introduced an electronic management system for e-filing of cases and for access to court records.  At this time, access to the electronic files and records management do not include anything filed in probate court.  Thus, each individual probate court is responsible for maintaining paper records of each file until they are shipped to the state archive. Thus, what happens in the remote county probate court, stays in the remote county courthouse.

Access to court documents and access to the rulings of the courts are essential in a meaningful democracy. Such access allows the public to monitor the actions of the judiciary. As an attorney, I wasn’t prevented from accessing the information, I was merely inconvenienced. In creating an e-filing system and document management (the ability to look at legal filings not related to your own initial case filing), the state of Kentucky wedded those two functions in one system. Without a login you cannot search for in-depth court information as a member of the general public. The public is allowed free access to docket sheets and the case style on a separate login site but something more than that will cost you.  Certain court records that were not filed electronically may still be stored in the county courthouse unless they have been collected and sent to the Kentucky State Archive (older in active cases).

In the end, I did find the three different appointments of three different administrators in order to challenge the statute of limitations.  The certified copies of handwritten legal documents that I would later e-file with a motion for summary judgment is exemplary of a system in transition with a need for public access.

  • Lisa von Wiegen, Of Counsel


This post is provided for general informational purposes only, and may not reflect the current law in your jurisdiction. No information contained in this post should be construed as legal advice from The Winters Law Group LLC, or the individual author, nor is it intended to be a substitute for legal counsel on any subject matter. No reader of this post should act or refrain from acting on the basis of any information included in, or accessible through, this Post without seeking the appropriate legal or other professional advice on the particular facts and circumstances at issue from a lawyer licensed in the recipient’s state, country or other appropriate licensing jurisdiction.

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