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How Attorneys Can Benefit from the Use of Public Records

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Public records are the backbone of many court cases regarding property, contracts, probate, and torts.

Attorneys with savvy assistants can prevail in a variety of cases if they do their homework using public records. And that research can do double duty, uncovering more potential clients with similar issues, expanding one’s client base and saving precious marketing funds with a targeted approach. Offering to solve a problem for a person before he’s a client is a good first step in a long-term business relationship and will earn many positive referrals.

Check out different types of public records that can be used to help attorneys:

  1. Property records – taxing property owners depends on property records held by municipalities, all of which are public record. The methods for establishing and assessing property taxes, creating building codes, and upholding habitability standards should all be contained in official records, including annual town reports, and comparable to similar municipalities.
  2. vital records – these public documents are necessary exhibits in cases involving factual issues regarding births, marriages, deaths, adoptions, and divorces. A valid divorce decree filed with the court is necessary for cases involving adjustments to child support, contempt, custody, and disposition of assets.
  3. contracts – These are the most common types of cases in civil courts and encompasses a variety of cases, from business partnerships to warranties to agreements among unions and their employers. While not every business contract is a public record, cases are built on comparisons with settled law, found in public documents. Court records will often contain valuable comparable contracts that were examples used in previous cases or that were subject to court decisions.
  4. probate records – These public records describe the distribution of a person’s estate upon death, including who is named executor in charge of the assets. An attorney may use probate records to research a dispute over inheritance, to research the disposal of property, and to determine if lingering debts were paid from the estate before heirs received portions. Likewise probate court records show how guardianships are handled, including how legal guardians are named, whether proper procedure was followed in a mental health commitment situation, and how inheritances flow to dependents.
  5. torts – Many tort cases involve liability, and public records can be key to building a case for or against.  Previous case law, found in public documents, provide guidance on pursuing product or personal liability judgements. Furthermore, newspaper articles about accidents, findings of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, police reports, fines levied by state agencies, and other public documents describing past practices of the defendant, previous product failures, or changes in manufacturing of the product can all aid an attorney’s case.

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When an attorney has public records culled for information pertaining to a case, they may come across many similarities between their client and other residents, employees, or other classes of people. This can be seen as an opportunity: to dive deeper into the public records and collect contact information for the others who are similarly affected by a court decision, a municipal regulation, or potential product malfunction.

Persons who work in an industry dominated by a specific type of machinery or manufacturer’s process may benefit from a class action lawsuit to repair issues with the product. Oftentimes state licensing boards can be a source of information for other tradesmen exposed to the same potentially harmful products or manufacturing processes used across an industry.

Likewise property owners affected by a regional issue, misapplication of building or health codes, construction error, or whose assessments are eligible for adjustment can be found using property records.

Building a Case

Lastly, there is the case involving the residents of Woburn, Massachusetts who were diagnosed with unusually high rates of cancers. Attorney, Jan Schlichtmann, expanded the scope of a lawsuit against probable polluters, chemical companies nearby that likely discharged waste into groundwater. Using records of historical property use, chemical properties, groundwater flow, and property ownership he represented several local families and developed a case against the companies, which he won and was chronicled in the book A Civil Action by Jonathan Harr.

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