Online Court Records: A Quick and Cheap Tool for Screening Tenants and Landlords

Online court records offer a great, quick and cheap method for screening tenants (and even landlords).

Whenever I’m involved in a landlord/tenant case, whether in Rhode Island or Massachsuetts, one of the first thing I do is peruse online court records: I like to know whether my client or the opposing party has ever been involved in a previous eviction case.

For me, this information really just satisfies my curiosity and does not necessarily change the way I handle eviction cases in Rhode Island or Massachsuetts. But for landlords looking for a way to screen tenants, access to online court records has wider implications. The same can be said for tenants who want assurances that they are renting from a reputable landlord.

A quick search of the court records by a person’s name will quickly tell you whether that person has ever been involved in an eviction case before. If a landlord finds that a prospective tenant has been evicted, it could signal that the prospect might be a problem tenant, perhaps paying rent late or engaging in behavior that warrants eviction. For landlords, searching court records can be a tool to supplement other screening methods, like pulling a credit report.

Online court records will likewise provide tenants with insight about a potential landlord. How many eviction cases has the landlord filed? If there are numerous cases, it could mean that there is a problem with other tenants (your future neighbors), or with the rental unit (your future home) that may have caused previous tenants to withhold rent.

Not incidentally, court records can also show other types of cases, like debt collection lawsuits. If a prospective tenant or potential landlord is having trouble paying their bills, how likely is it that rent will be paid on time or that the landlord will have funds to pay for a major repair when the water heater goes out?

Massachusetts court records are available online.

In Massachusetts, court records can be accessed over the internet through the Massachusetts Trial Court Electronic Case Access system. Records are available for the Housing Court, District Court and Superior Court.

Rhode Island court records are also available online, but on a limited basis.

In Rhode Island, court records for the District Court and Superior Court (landlord/tenant matters are heard first in the District Court) are also available over the internet. However, as of September 2016, internet access to court records is restricted to attorneys. There are a few wokrarounds to this problem:

  1. Call an attorney for help. Forming a relationship with an attorney who can help screen tenants (or even landlords) can go a long way toward avoiding bad landlord/tenant situations.
  2. Go to any courthouse and look up the records on the public computer terminals (call ahead to make sure the public computers are working).
  3. Call the court clerk to see if you can get the information by phone. Say that you are looking for cases filed by or against the landlord or tenant and see what you come up with (note that court clerks are often busy, so they may not have a lot of time to search or provide detailed information).

I’m a fan of screening tenants and landlords. I think it is a good way of preventing problems down the line which can become expensive and time consuming. Adding a check of available online court records to your screening process is an inexpensive and easy way to achieve that goal.

Need help with a landlord/tenant matter?

Call (401) 400-4005 or contact us to discuss.