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A case law database is an organized collection of court decisions or court opinions stored in digital format. Legal publishing companies often provide access to such a database through the Internet. In addition to court cases, publishers maintain databases containing a wide array of materials. Some websites allow free access while others charge fees to search the database. Lawyers, judges, paralegals, and law students frequently use a case law database for legal research.
Legal websites or legal publishers typically organize case law materials based upon jurisdiction. For instance, in the U.S., each state has its own court system so there is a case law database for each state. On the national level, the U.S. federal court system is organized by circuit that cover a particular region, so a database is provided for each circuit. Separate databases allow individuals to purchase access to specific compilations that they use frequently to search for cases that are binding authority in their jurisdiction. Publishers also usually provide a database containing all states and all federal courts for wider searches.
Access to a case law database is not the only service a legal publisher provides. A vast amount of additional information is available such as statutes, regulations, law journals, law review articles, legal forms, and legal encyclopedias. Legal professionals rely on this type of information to conduct legal research. Some publishers also provide databases containing public records such as property liens. Information may also include newspapers, magazines, and a variety of other materials.
To search a case law database, a researcher may use a specific case citation, a name of a plaintiff or defendant, or key terms. A case citation is a combination of abbreviations and numbers that identifies an individual case. If the citation is unknown, a researcher may use the name of a party involved in the case. Another good way to search a case law database is to use key terms. For example, typing in a search for drunk driving brings up all court cases containing those terms. The search can be further refined by concentrating on a particular jurisdiction.
Some publishers or websites allow access to their case law database at no charge while others have various fee schedules. Anyone needing frequent access may enter into a contract that specifies the fees for access, if any. The publisher then issues a password to each person authorized to use the service. Instead of unlimited access, a researcher may in the alternative choose to pay by the search. Fees vary and depend on the databases searched, the amount of time spent in a database, and whether information is downloaded or printed.
Database publishers that charge fees usually provide special services or benefits that are not available through other websites that offer free access to a case law database. For instance,publishers often provide a service that indicates whether a specific court case remains good law or whether it a higher court overturned a particular court decision. These publishers also summarize cases by key points, which makes it easier to understand complex decisions. Customer service representatives may be available around the clock to answer questions and help individuals conduct searches.