In Alabama, public records law was first enacted in 1923, with the first statutes being contained within the Code of Alabama. The law can still be found here today, but it has undergone many updates and changes in the past century. Unlike many other states, in which public records law is largely or entirely held within one act or piece of legislation, public meetings access, and access to their records thereafter, are actually contained within an entirely independent law, the Alabama Open Meetings Act.
Alabama law states that every citizen has the right to inspect and take copies of any public writing of the state, unless expressly forbidden (by another specific law, for example). Of course, "public" writings of the state are up to interpretation, so clarifying language was added and revised in 1975. It states that "all written, typed or printed books, papers, letters, documents and maps made or received in pursuance of law by public officers of the state, counties, municipalities and other subdivisions of government in the transaction of public business" constitute public record. While 'public record' and 'public writing' may not be identical phrasing, they are accepted to mean the same thing with regards to the definition of this part of Alabama law.
While there's plenty of other passages of legal language found in these statutes, the other most important piece of information is simply that offices are required by law to keep these records and to keep them maintained and orderly. This prevents offices from being able to 'bury' or misplace information they know is public record and therefore available should anyone come looking. This can help if you experience excessive delaying or wait times for a requested piece of information.
Common Public Records
There are a few types of common records that are requested more often than others (both in Alabama and often in other states as well), so here's a look at how you can get a hold of those.
Vital records are records that include major life events, including but not limited to birth and death certificates. These records are most commonly used in genealogical or family history type research. As with many states, these records can be found within the Department of Public Health in Alabama. In addition to birth and death records, the Department of Public Health also keeps track of marriage and divorce records (also very useful when researching family history topics). While these record types may be technically part of the public record, some are restricted by "confidentiality" stipulations, for example..
Birth certificates in Alabama can only be accessed by the person named on them, parents or legal guardians of the person, their spouse, their children, or some other legally authorized representative. These restrictions stay in place for 125 years from the date of birth. The fee for searching for and for one copy of a certificate is $15, and $6 for additional copies if ordered at the same time.
Death certificates are similarly restricted for 25 years from the date of death. In these cases, anyone who is legally given permission in the deceased's will or who is a family member (extending to grandchildren) can obtain the record. Again, the $15/$6 pricing scheme applies here.
Marriage certificates are unrestricted, meaning that any member of the public can have access to them. If researching family history, it is worth noting that marriage certificates from before 1936 are held in the probate office where that marriage was held. Same pricing.
Divorce certificates are also unrestricted and, like marriage certificates, must be obtained from the local probate's office if prior to a certain date. For divorce records, this is 1950. Same pricing applies.
Other public records in the state of Alabama are not held in a central place, and must be obtained through direct communication with the office of inquiry. For example, those looking for information on an open criminal record should contact the relevant police force, those looking for pay information on elected officials should contact that official's office, and anyone looking for court case transcripts or documents should get a hold of the court house where the case was handled.
It can sometimes be challenging to access public records in Alabama. In a recent survey, it was found that only 45% of sheriff's offices and 61% of police departments supplied the public records information requested of them without incident. It is not at all uncommon to find offices which play their cards close to the chest, only offering up records when ordered to by a judge. If this is the case, it is fairly easy to get a judge's order for records in Alabama as long as you can show they are covered in the state code. As long as you are polite and back up your sincere interest in obtaining documents with a knowledge of the law, you shouldn't have any trouble at all.