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About court records
Use this guide for research help on locating court documents related to a case. (If you are looking for case law/judgments/court decisions, please see How to Find Legal Cases and Finding Legal Cases by Topic).
The rules governing access to court documents are complex. This guide provides a brief overview. Please see the recommended links throughout this guide to the detailed, official rules.
Please note that although case law is amply available from a number of sources, other legal documents associated with a case such as court transcripts are more challenging to track down, and, in many instances, are not readily available to the public. Also, different types of legal documents within a particular case will have different access rules. Examples of legal documents that may form part of the court record:
- Statements of Claim
- Search Warrants
- Trial transcripts
- Documents submitted as evidence in a trial, such as Witness Statements
Case name and case citation
It is important to have the case name or, better still, the full case citation when beginning your research. Knowing the citation will help disambiguate between cases that went through several levels of court (e.g., Provincial, Supreme, Appeal), while providing a standardized way of referring to cases when communicating with others in your research, such as course registries. One way to find the case citation details is to first locate the judgment in a legal database such as CanLii.
In what court was the case heard? For instance, was it a BC Supreme Court (BCSC) case or a BC Court of Appeal (BCCA) case? Once you know the level of court, it may be helpful to discern where the case is registered. For instance, the BCSC has numerous registries throughout the province. Original documents that form part of the case record will typically be registered in the associated jurisdiction of the case. Of note, many court documents held at court registries, particularly older documents, will not be digitized. Note also that older court documents may be located in off-site storage, presenting a longer wait time to access.
Some types of case files are off-limits to the public. For example, criminal, family, bankruptcy and probate files, and those civil files that have an publication ban, are not generally accessible - or at least not in full. You would need to be either a lawyer or a party to the case to access the court documents due to the personal or sensitive nature of the material.
Sources for Court Records
The Supreme Court of Canada, based in Ottawa, allows for online requests of court documents.
In BC, documents that are part of legal proceedings (and form part of the court record) such as Statements of Claims can either be found via Court Services Online (a government database that provides access some legal records for a fee), or by visiting/making a request directly to the courthouse registry itself.
If documents were filed as part of court proceedings, then the court registry where the case was tried in usually keeps a copy of these associated documents. Note that not all documents used in court are part of the official court record (e.g., documents from a Book of Documents) may not be included. Viewing the records in a court registry usually requires an in-person visit and a small fee. Access may also be restricted, such as a prohibition of cell phone use while viewing records. Requests for copies of court records may also be made remotely to some court registries (e.g., over the phone).
Newer court documents may available online if a digitized version was originally submitted to the court via electronic submission; this is becoming more common. Overall, though, there is a limited amount of original court documentation available online, even for a fee. The main exception is the actual case law (a copy of the judge's decision) which is amply available via multiple online sources. The Supreme Court of Canada also posts more court documents online, such as factums, given the importance of these cases.
The BC Ministry of Justice determines Who Can Access a Court File.
Accessing court records
Court Services Online (CSO): British Columbia's Electronic Court Registry
About: CSO is a BC government website which allows you to interact with BC's Court Systems in a few ways: to search provincial and supreme court files, to review the day's schedule of court matters, and to e-file some court documents. It is the online registry for BC Courts.
What you can find here:
- Information on specific cases from various levels of court and subject matter: BC Civil, Court of Appeal, and Traffic/Criminal Cases. The latter category includes criminal offences, traffic offences, and by-law violations
- Records may include a list of documents filed in the case (but not necessarily the full text of the documents themselves), key dates and data about the case, such as the counsel-on-record for the case and more, plus the full text of some court documents such as Statements of Claim, Statements of Defence, Notices of Motion, etc. Court documents that have been e-filed may also be found here, with the exception of traffic and criminal cases.
- Information on cases from 1989-onwards. Prior to that, you will need to contact the appropriate court registry
CSO is free to search, but there is a $6.00 fee to access full-text documents. Full-text access is available for BC Supreme Court files. Searching Provincial traffic and criminal files is also free, however, no full-text court documents are viewable online for these matters.
About: Among many other functions, court registries process and store legal documents of cases heard at their respective courts.
What you can find here: More robust access to court records than usually available online.
Note: over 90% of BC criminal cases are treated in Provincial Court
- Policies Regarding Public and Media Access in the Provincial Court of British Columbia and Access to Court Records: Policies of the Provincial Court of British Columbia
Note: The BC Supreme Court Registries located in the Lower Mainland include Vancouver, New Westminster, and Chilliwack.
- BC Court of Appeal: Record and Courtroom Access Policy. Includes a definition of The Court Record, plus specific instructions for requesting Civil, Criminal or Family Court of Appeal court records.
Note: The Court of Appeal Registry is located in Vancouver. Although Court of Appeal documents may initially be filed at various BC court registries associated with the trial location, these documents will eventually be transferred for long-term storage at the main Vancouver Court of Appeal Registry.
Note: The Supreme Court of Canada offers an efficient online court document request form, saving you a trip to the registry in Ottawa.
Once you've located the correct registry, you may contact them with your document request query via two methods:
a. Online, self-directed request. Order documents from the court registry--when available.
b. Mediated request. Contact the Courthouse Registry either in person, by phone, or by email for further instructions on viewing the file.
- Some Court records with restricted access may require special application to the court, and are subject to judicial approval
British Columbia Archives
The BC Archives, based in Victoria, BC, holds select court records: "Court records include divorce records, probated estate records, wills, civil case files and bankruptcy records."
Note: While the examples given above are provided for BC, you can anticipate other provinces and territories will have a similar structure.
Generally, in Canada, court transcripts are not required to be made publicly accessible, and in most cases, are not. Court transcripts are typically prepared by private court reporting companies or in-house court reporters. Some possible ways you might be able to access transcripts:
- When cases have unrestricted access, court transcripts created by the court may be available to the public for purchase. If access is restricted, you may be able to apply for access via a judicial Order.
- You might also be able to order a copy of the court transcript by contacting the private company that produced the transcript, provided there are no restrictions.
- If a party in a case appeals the decision to a higher court (e.g., Court of Appeal or Supreme Court of Canada), that person is often required to submit the transcript of the case in their application to appeal. Once submitted, these transcripts will become part of the Court of Appeal file, possibly available for viewing in print format at the Court registry.
- Transcripts may become part of the court file when there are witnesses statements/oral testimony in those transcripts.
- Judgments: Sometimes both parties to a legal case will pay for a transcript of an oral decision (done by a court reporter), in which case it may also become part of the official court record.