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Are Virginia Court Records Public?

Pursuant to the Virginia Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), Virginia court records are public records which are accessible to anyone without having to present a statement of purpose. The Virginia FOIA is a set of laws established to guarantee public access to all public records of government bodies at all levels in the state. A public record is any writing or recording, regardless of nature, whether a paper record, an electronic file, an audio or video recording prepared, owned by, or in possession of a public body or its officers, employees, or agents in the transaction of public business.

Virginia does not restrict the use of public records after obtaining them but limits the right of incarcerated felons to request any record whatsoever. Note that entire records or portions of court records may be sealed from public access if they are considered confidential. For example, most juvenile court records are considered confidential in Virginia per Virginia Code § 16.1-305.

The Virginia FOIA was enacted in 1968 and has gone through several amendments. The 1999 General Assembly made significant changes to the FOIA in a bid to clarify previously ambiguous provisions. The 1999 amendments also restructured portions of the statute and took away some of the cumbersome languages of the FOIA.

Another round of amendments in 2004 made searching for exemptions to disclosure of records less tedious by reorganizing the 100-plus exemption list into structure heading and sections. In 2005, new rules were added to the FOIA which permitted state agencies to meet electronically under very specific circumstances and procedures.

How Do I Find Court Records in Virginia?

The first step to take when trying to obtain court records in Virginia is to verify the court where the case in question was held. The next step is to visit the courthouse location to request court records from the record custodian in the court. The Clerks of Court are usually the record custodians in Virginia courts. Court records are typically kept in paper or electronic formats. Hence, requesters can find court records in any of these ways:

  • Visiting the local courthouses to obtain paper copies of court records
  • Visiting the local courthouses to view electronic copies of court records from public access terminals
  • Accessing local courthouse websites or the Virginia Court System website online for electronic copies

In-person requesters can access paper copies of court records at courthouses for nominal fees. Requesters can also access electronic copies of court records by using the public access computer terminals in the Clerks' offices. To locate the address for any court in Virginia, visit the directories page on the Virginia judicial system's website.

The Supreme Court of Virginia provides online access to its Appellate Case Management System (ACMS-SCV). Through this system, requesters can find case information for Supreme Court records by entering SCV record numbers or combinations of the following search items:

  • Names (last and first)
  • Case Type
  • Lower Tribunal
  • Tribunal Case number

Note that the ACMS-SCV system is unavailable from 3:00 a.m. to 6:00 a.m. every night.

Case information from the Court of Appeals can also be accessed using the ACMS-CAV system by entering a Court of Appeal of Virginia (CAV) Record number or any combination of search items as listed above for Supreme Court case information search. The system also undergoes nightly maintenance during which it is unavailable.

Case records of Virginia Circuit Courts proceedings can be viewed on the Circuit Court Case Information page of the Virginia Judiciary System website. However, not every Circuit Court in Virginia makes case records available on this portal. Examples of circuit courts that do not provide case records on the case information system are the circuit courts of Alexandria and Fairfax. To begin a search on the page, select the court in question.

Relevant case information such as name, case number, or hearing date will be required for a successful search. Statewide searches are not possible using this portal. Searches must be done by individual courts. To obtain court records for Circuit Courts in Alexandria and Fairfax, contact the courts directly. Visit the Individual Circuit Court page of the Virginia Judicial System website to find the addresses of all Circuit Courts in Virginia.

General District Court case records can be accessed from the General District Court Online Case Information System page of the Virginia Judiciary System website. Traffic/criminal cases can be searched using the name, case number, hearing date, or service/process search option. Civil case records can also be found using any of the four options mentioned. Information regarding the following types of cases is not available through the General District Court Online Case Information System:

  • Protective orders (e.g., emergency protective orders, preliminary protective orders, and protective orders)
  • Civil commitment proceedings (e.g., emergency custody orders temporary detention orders, and involuntary commitments)
  • Medical emergency custody and temporary detention orders.

Considered open to citizens of the United States, public records are available through both traditional, government sources, and through third-party websites and organizations. In many cases, third-party websites make the search easier as they are not limited geographically or by technological limitations. They are considered a good place to start when looking for a specific record or multiple records. In order to gain access to these records, interested parties must typically provide:

  • The name of the person listed in the record. Juveniles are typically exempt from this search method. 
  • The last known or assumed location of the person listed in the record. This includes cities, counties, and states. 

While third-party sites offer such services, they are not government-sponsored entities, and record availability may vary on these sites when compared to government sources.

How Do Virginia Courts Work?

The Virginia judicial system aims to ensure that disputes are resolved fairly and promptly. The judicial system comprises the court system unified in its structure and administration, judges and court personnel, and uniform rules of practice and procedure.

There are four levels of courts in the Virginia court system: The Supreme Court, the Court of Appeals, the Circuit Courts, and the District Courts. Virginia also authorized magistrates to serve as judicial officers with authority to preside over various kinds of processes. The state’s court system is separated into 31 judicial circuits and 32 judicial districts.

Usually, a citizen's first contact with the Virginia judicial system is with a magistrate. Magistrates are mandated to provide independent, unbiased reviews of complaints of criminal conduct brought by law enforcement officers or the general public. Magistrates are empowered to issue arrest warrants, summonses, search warrants, emergency protective and custody orders, and specific civil warrants. A Virginia Magistrate can conduct bail hearings in a situation where an individual is arrested to determine under what conditions the arrestee should be released from custody pre-trial. There are Magistrate Offices located across Virginia, including at least one in each of the state's 32 judicial districts.

There are six Justices and a Chief Justice serving in the Supreme Court. Eleven Appeal Court Judges serve on the Court of Appeals. Supreme Court Justices serve 12-year terms while judges of the Court of Appeal and the Circuit Courts serve eight-year terms. The judges of the General District Courts and the Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court serve six-year terms.

 

Virginia Court Structure

What Are Civil Court and Small Claims?

Civil claims in Virginia are filed in the General District Courts for disputes where the amount in controversy is up to and including $25,000, with certain exceptions. Civil actions may be brought before the District Courts by summons, warrants, or motions for judgement. This requires the person against whom the claim is being asserted to appear before the district court on a specific day to answer the complaint.

The small claims court is a special division of the General District Court with jurisdiction over civil cases in instances where the plaintiff seeks a money judgement up to $5,000 or recovery of personal property valued up to the same amount. Small claims court procedures are relaxed, and the process is inexpensive and prompt. Hence, it makes an excellent forum for straightforward disputes, such as automotive repair disputes and security deposit cases. The simplified procedures of small claim courts permit evidence to be admitted at the judge’s discretion beyond what is generally allowed by formal rules of practice, procedure, pleading or evidence. The judge makes all decisions as no juries arbitrate in small claims proceedings.

According to the Code of Virginia 16.1-122.1 through 16.1-122.7, neither party to a small claims court case may be represented by an attorney. The court is meant for pro se litigants only. Small claims court forms must be completed by the plaintiffs representing themselves or representing corporations and partnerships. No provisions are made for unlawful detainer/eviction actions seeking possession of real property in small claims court. Such cases are to be filed as civil actions.

To file a case in the small claims court, the plaintiff must be at least 18 years old or an emancipated minor.

What Are Appeals and Court Limits?

Persons who are unhappy about the decisions made by trial court judges may seek redress at a higher court.  An appeal is a process in which a party to a case requests a higher court, on proper consideration of facts placed before it, and the applicable law, to verify that the lower court arrived at the correct decision.

According to Va. R. Sup. Ct. 5:17, unless otherwise provided by rule or statute, in any case of appeal direct from a trial court, a petition for appeal must be filed with the clerk of the appellate court not more than 90 days after entry of the judgment of the lower court. In the case of an appeal from the Court of Appeals, Virginia also stipulates a 30-day limit from the entry of the appealed judgement or denial of a timely petition for rehearing.

How Do I Find My Case Number in Virginia?

A case number is a unique number assigned to individual court cases for easy identification and tracking. Specific information can be obtained from case numbers, such as the filing year, case type, and the assigned judicial handling officer. Knowing the case number for a particular case can help record custodians locate requested records when performing a court record search. Where the case number is not known, the record custodian in accordance with the laws of Virginia may charge nominal fees for conducting a search.

Case numbers can be found through the Virginia online case management system if requesters can provide other information such as the name of a party to the case or hearing date. Using any of these two options to query the case management system will return case information showing case numbers for all search results.

Can You Look up Court Cases in Virginia?

Yes. Virginia provides online access for requesters to access court cases. The Virginia judicial system hosts different portals for requesters to look up court cases from the Supreme Court, Court of Appeals, Circuit Courts, and the General District Courts. Interested persons may access these portals remotely to look up court cases or visit local courthouses to use public access terminals to look up court cases. Note that confidential records are exempt from access.

Does Virginia Hold Remote Trials?

Following the protocols established in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, trial courts in Virginia were permitted to use two-way videoconferencing for all proceedings with the consent of all parties involved. Per an announcement of Supreme Court Chief Justice Donald W. Lemons, judges may in their discretion, conduct any civil or criminal matter by electronic audio-visual communication with the consent of the participants. However, the Chief Justice does not recommend the use of videoconferencing applications in the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court advised trial courts to enable security checks in their use of video conferencing applications. For instance, security measures for zoom application use include:

  • Ensuring that the participants have the most current software version of the Zoom client
  • Requiring authentication
  • Requiring a meeting password
  • Enabling a waiting room
  • Limiting screen sharing
  • Limiting join before host
  • Locking the meeting upon the arrival of participants
  • Identifying guests
  • Avoiding making meetings public and sharing meeting links in unrestricted social media posts.

What Is the Virginia Supreme Court?

The Supreme Court of Virginia is the court of last resort in the state. It consists of a Chief Justice and six Justices. The court's primary purpose is to review decisions of lower courts from which appeals have been allowed. The Supreme Court handles cases involving corporations, the conduct of judges and attorneys, and the performance of other public officials. An appeal to the Supreme Court is not a matter of right except in cases involving the State Corporation Commission, certain disciplinary actions against attorneys, and reviews of impositions of death penalties. The decisions of this court are binding on itself and all lower courts in Virginia.

Virginia Court of Appeals?

The Court of Appeal is the intermediate appellate court in Virginia. The court reviews all decisions of the Circuit Court in domestic relations matters, appeals from the decisions of an administrative agency, traffic violations, and criminal cases. A petition must first be filed through the Circuit Court before a traffic or criminal case may be reviewed by the Virginia Court of Appeals. Appeals of final decisions of the Virginia Workers' Compensation Commission are also heard in the Court of Appeals. The court has original jurisdiction to issue writs of mandamus, prohibition, and habeas corpus in any case over which the court has appellate jurisdiction, and writs of actual innocence (based on non-biological evidence). The Virginia Court of Appeals does not review decisions involving the death penalty.

Appeal of traffic, criminal, denial of a concealed handgun permit, and certain preliminary rulings on felony cases are brought before the Virginia Court of Appeals by petition for appeal, while all other appeals to the court are a matter of right. Other civil decisions of the Circuit Court bypass the Court of Appeals and go directly to the Supreme Court of Virginia by petition for appeal.

By statute, the decisions of the Court of Appeals are final on matters of traffic infractions and misdemeanor cases where no incarceration is imposed, in domestic relations matters, and cases arising from administrative agencies or the Virginia Workers' Compensation Commission. Although, upon a petition for review, the Supreme Court may review those decisions as well if it finds that the ruling of the Court of Appeals involves a substantial constitutional question as a determinative issue or matters of significant precedential value. In cases where the decision of the Court of Appeals is not final, an aggrieved party may petition the Supreme Court for an appeal.

Established in 1985, the Court of Appeals consists of 11 judges who sit in panels of at least three judges. The membership of the panels is periodically rotated. Under certain conditions, the court may also sit en banc. The Chief Judge of the Court of Appeals designates the sitting location of the court. The locations are also rotated to provide convenient access to the various geographic areas of Virginia.

Virginia Circuit Courts?

Virginia Circuit Courts are trial courts of general jurisdiction. The Circuit Court is the sole court with the authority to try any case for which jurisdiction is not specified in the Code of Virginia. Circuit Courts are the only trial courts of record and the only courts where juries are provided for the trial of criminal cases.

Virginia Circuit Courts have jurisdiction over the following types of civil actions:

  • Divorce proceedings
  • Wills, trusts and estate matters
  • Property disputes
  • Adoption proceedings
  • Exclusive original jurisdiction of monetary claims exceeding $25,000
  • Attachments
  • Validity of a county or municipal ordinance or corporate bylaw
  • Shared jurisdiction with General District Courts of monetary claims of more than $4,500 but not exceeding $25,000.

The following types of criminal cases are handled in the Circuit Courts:

  • All felonies, which are offenses that may be punished by imprisonment of more than one year
  • Misdemeanor offenses that were appealed from the District Court or originated from a grand jury indictment
  • Transfer or certification of felony offenses committed by juveniles

Virginia Circuit Courts hear appeals from the General District Courts or Juvenile Domestic Relations District Court de novo. That is, these cases are heard as completely new cases, with evidence reheard and a decision made based on the evidence. Circuit Courts also handle appeals from administrative agencies. The Virginia Circuit Court convenes a grand jury at the start of each term of the court. The responsibility of the grand jury is to consider bills of indictment to determine whether there is sufficient probable cause to believe that a person accused of having committed a serious crime did commit such crime and should stand trial. Note that the grand jury does not hear both sides of the case and does not determine the guilt or innocence of the accused.

Certain conditions may necessitate the convening of a special grand jury. Such conditions include the need to investigate any condition that tends to promote criminal activity in the community or indicates malfeasance by government officials or agencies. Special grand juries typically possess subpoena powers and may summon persons, documents, or records needed in its investigation.

Decisions of the Circuit Courts may be appealed to the Court of Appeals or in specific cases, to the Supreme Court of Virginia. The Virginia court system consists of 31 judicial circuits with 120 different circuit courts in the counties and cities of Virginia.

Virginia District Courts?

District Courts are Virginia's courts of limited civil and criminal jurisdiction. Jury trials are not held in these courts; rather, cases are heard by judges. Virginia divides its District Court system into two: the General District Court and the Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court. There are General District Courts and Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Courts in every city and county within the 32 judicial districts of Virginia.

The General District Court handles all criminal cases involving misdemeanors under state law and offenses that are violations of ordinances and laws of the county or city where the court is situated. Virginia defines a misdemeanor as any charge that carries a penalty of up one year in jail or a fine of up to $2,5000 or both.

Virginia's General District Courts handle traffic infraction cases and hold preliminary hearings in felony cases. During a preliminary hearing, the court determines whether there is sufficient evidence to justify holding the defendant for a grand jury hearing. The grand jury determines whether the accused will be indicted and held for trial in the Circuit Court.

The Juvenile and Domestic Relations District court handle cases involving:

  • children accused of delinquent acts, traffic violations or status offenses
  • children in need of services or supervision
  • children who have been subjected to abuse or neglect, or abandoned
  • children whose custody, visitation, support, or parentage is before the court
  • children in foster care
  • children for whom relief of custody or termination of parental rights is sought
  • children seeking emancipation or work permits
  • children whose eligibility for federal or state benefits requires certain findings by the court
  • family or household members who have been subjected to or accused of abuse
  • adults accused of child abuse or neglect, or of offenses against a family or household member
  • spouses seeking support after separation
  • enforcement of support orders
  • court-ordered rehabilitation services
  • court consent for certain medical treatments
  • court-ordered blood testing of children

Virginia Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Courts are unique in that they are able to protect the confidentiality and privacy of children and their families who have legal matters before the court. These courts also consider services needed to provide rehabilitation for delinquent children. Parties subject to a Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court order or judgment may appeal the decision to the Circuit Court. Appeals must be filed in writing with the clerk within ten days of the court's order or judgement.

Virginia State Archives

State Archives

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Results are based upon available information from state, county and municipal databases, and may not include some or all of the above details.

Virginia

The Colonial Williamsburg Courthouse is one of the oldest in the state, and was first built between 1770 and 1771.

  • There are 4 types of courts in Virginia. They are the Supreme Court, the Court of Appeals, the Circuit Courts, and the District Courts. 
  • Virginia’s Supreme Court holds 12 justice positions. Each judge serves for 12 years.
  • The Supreme Court in Virginia was previously known as the Supreme Court of Appeals. This was renamed in 1970 due to it having both original and appellate jurisdiction.
  • The Court of Appeals has 11 judges that each serve terms of 8 years. Each panel consists of three judges. 

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