Privacy and Public Access to Court Records

Court records include the case file of a lawsuit, records of any hearings, and information the court or the clerk of the court prepare in connection with any judicial proceeding. A court's management information and data (budgets, reports, and statistics) are also considered court records. Since computers make it easy to gather and store information, many courts have developed databases of information. This database is also considered a court record.

Public Access to Court Records

Court records have generally been open and available to the public. In the past, if you wanted to check a court record, you had to go to the clerk's office in the courthouse. The process was time consuming. Now, many court documents are kept in an electronic format, and most courts display at least some court documents on the Internet. A person can now easily look at official court documents from outside the courthouse. Such easy access to court documents has raised concerns about personal privacy and public safety. The challenge today is to balance the goal of open access to court records with an individual's right to privacy.

Freedom of Information Laws

The federal government and most states have freedom of information laws, which provide a right to access public records. Some records do not have to be made available, including personnel and medical records, records or information compiled for law enforcement purposes, identities of confidential sources, and trade secrets. Freedom of information laws apply in varying degrees accross the states to court administrative records but not to adjudicatory functions.

Personal Privacy

Courts increasingly require more information about the persons involved in a lawsuit, the nature of the lawsuit, and the events of the case. A person has a right of privacy in personal information kept by the courts. The defendant in a lawsuit (the person being sued) is not a willing participant in the legal process. Information about the plaintiff (the person suing) and the defendant may be sensitive or embarrassing. Observers believe that access to personal information, such as birth date, address, telephone number, and social security number, should be restricted due to the potential for personal harm or inconvenience if the information is released. The courts can be expected to continue their examination of the proper balance for court records between rights of privacy and the public's right to know.

Copyright 2012 LexisNexis, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc.