In general, anything filed with a court is available to the public. If someone has filed a document—whether in a criminal case, a divorce, a child support proceeding, or another kind of legal matter—chances are it’s open to inspection. And while it’s no surprise that celebrities' divorce petitions or indictments are splashed all over the Internet, not hard to find legal documents about ordinary people as well.
There are, however, some important exceptions to this general rule that court records are public.
(This article provides general information about the privacy of certain kinds of court records. If you’re looking for detail, consider consulting an attorney in the relevant area of law.)
Filing Under Seal
A party to a legal proceeding can generally ask the court to file a document “under seal,” which would keep it from becoming part of the public record. But a judge won’t grant the request without a good reason. It’s a basic principle in this country that citizens have the right to know what their government—including the court system—is doing. Judges have to balance this public interest with an individual’s interest in privacy.
In the area of family law, for example, people involved in divorces and child support proceedings are often required to file detailed financial statements. Naturally, they usually want to keep this information private. The laws in your state will determine who can see these documents. They’ll also establish who has to do what in order to protect or reveal that information. Some states provide that anyone who is not a party in the case must get a court order to see the information, while other states require that the person who filed the documents get an order to seal them.
If you’re concerned about the privacy of anything you—or the other side—will file in a legal proceeding, it’s a good idea to talk to a lawyer about your options.
State laws tend to protect the confidentiality of juvenile court files in both:
- “delinquency” cases, where a minor is accused of violating a law, and
- “dependency” cases, where the authorities get involved because of abuse or neglect.
Adoption is another area where court records often involve young people. Adoption records are private in almost all states. Most of those states do, however, have procedures for requesting information about birth parents, other relatives, and adoptees. Regardless of the precise procedure, the affected individuals typically have to give their consent to release their names or other information that would identify them.
(For more information and a guide to the laws in different states, see the federal government’s Child Welfare Information Gateway.)
Some states allow crime victims to protect the privacy of their personal information in government records that would otherwise be public, like voter registration rolls or DMV records. Victims of domestic violence, stalking, and harassment are among those who can be eligible for this protection.
The federal Violence Against Women Act sets rules intended to protect the privacy of information about domestic violence victims that could be used to identify and find them. For resources, see the Electronic Privacy Information Center’s page on domestic violence and privacy. (When looking for help, remember to consider how private your computer, Internet, and phone use are and whether there's anything you can and should do to prevent others from monitoring them.)
It’s also possible to safeguard the records of court proceedings involving the victim. The victim’s name and address, for example, might be redacted either automatically or on request. (The law might even restrict the defendant’s access to the alleged victim’s contact information.) The proceedings themselves can also involve steps to shield the alleged victim. For instance, the victim of a sex crime might be referred to as “Jane Doe” in court, a child victim might be allowed to testify without having to be in the courtroom, or the courtroom might be closed to the public while a victim testifies. (For more information in this general area of law, see Victims’ Rights.)