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Clerk Assisted Searches – The Dreaded Diagnosis of Doom


We’ve all been there before, haven’t we? Ordering a criminal background check and the next thing you know, you’re being told delays are occurring because of…wait for it…stop me if you’ve heard this before…” it’s a clerk assisted search”! Oh, no, say it isn’t so! Far too often this type of update is provided without any education on exactly what ‘clerk assistance’ truly means. A clerk assisted search is typically defined as when research on a subject must be turned over to, or completed by, a Court Clerk. This puts the control out of the hands of the Court Researcher, and directly into the hands of an employee of the Court.

Clerk assistance can vary greatly from jurisdiction-to-jurisdiction, and it would be foolish to assume all clerk assisted areas can be explained in one blog post. However, there is one state that is notorious for their Clerk Assisted Search Delays, and that would be the state of Massachusetts. This blog post serves to provide insight into the MA Court Research process, and the challenges found within.

First, let’s define the types of Courts that are searched in MA:

Superior Court: Superior Court has a computer system, but it only shows name and year of case filing.

District Court: District Court is all docket books, and only shows name, DOB, and year of case filing. All other case info must be obtained via file retrieval that is done by Clerks and there are often lengthy delays due to limitations on the number of files pulled per day/per researcher, etc.

Non-Default District: These Courts rarely have any sort of computer system or docket books available to the public. They are 100% Clerk Assisted in nature.

Secondly, let’s take two specific counties known for having lengthy delays in turnaround time due to Clerk Assistance, and really break down what’s happening:

Worcester County, MA

Researchers drop off lists of names in a basket, Court Clerks (about 6 of them) pick up and complete requests randomly—this is a challenge because researchers have no idea who is working on their lists.

  1. Superior Court has electronic files but District Court still works with paper files, which means pages within files or even entire files can be missing or difficult to locate. This can cause initial delays, and sometimes files are given to researchers and they discover pages are missing.
  2. With newer cases, the files can be housed in several different locations (probation office, judge’s chambers, DA’s office).
  3. Within the last six months, a new Court Clerk was hired and got reprimanded by Court Officials for helping researchers too much!!!
  4. New policies in the Court dictate a total of 10 files to be pulled daily.
  5. Clerks who are caught pulling more than 10 will be fired immediately.
  6. The only exception is if one subject has more than 10 files, all the files will be pulled for that one particular subject and no other.
  7. There may be days where their house volume will not permit them to pull any files at all and they will not carry those 10 files to the next day.

As a final talking point on Worcester County, all hits must have files pulled. Court Clerks are not permitted to have contact with researchers. Extended TAT can stem from Clerks not pulling files on a first-come first-serve basis and researchers must reorder files to increase the chances that theirs will be pulled that day.

Hampden County, MA

For this county, subjects are searched at Superior Court (done using computers that do not have IDs, only docket numbers) and the District Court (which is completely docket books).

  1. Once a subject has a potential record, the docket (file) is compiled by the researcher. The researcher puts this person’s docket number(s) with others that need to be pulled.
  2. The researcher must then wait for the docket to be pulled, and documents are pulled at the Clerk’s discretion.  There is no order to this.
  3. Hampden County Court Clerks aim to pull files for 10 subjects each day, but per many researchers, this benchmark is rarely accomplished.

So the next time someone tells you that there’s a delay occurring with a search because of ‘Clerk Assistance’, be sure to ask for these types of details. This type of information will hopefully help mitigate any pains surrounding the delays. Remember, if you can’t control the outcome of a search, or how long it takes to produce it, you can control how well you’re informing your customer on the nature of any delays.