This week, a committee of the New Jersey Supreme Court issued a report recommending that the court’s records be made accessible to the public through the internet. The report’s executive summary reads in part:

In drafting the proposed rule, the Committee accepted as a bedrock principle the need to preserve New Jersey’s strong tradition favoring public access. Accordingly, the rule begins with the presumption that all court and administrative records are available for inspection unless otherwise exempted. This approach is a significant departure from the current version of Rule 1:38, which narrowly defines court records as only those that are “required by statute or rule to be made, maintained, or kept on file” in the course of the court’s official business. The current version of Rule 1:38 does not specifically address the broad category of administrative records. The proposed rule is intended to replace the common law “balancing of interests” test with an absolute right of access to all non-exempt court and administrative records.

What does this mean for you? In practical terms, it means that almost anything that is filed with the court (motions, pleadings, hearing records, admissions at trial) will be made public via the internet with these details and exceptions:

  • Certain personal identification numbers (“personal identifiers”) should be treated as confidential by the Judiciary, and litigants should be required to omit them from any documents submitted to the court. Those confidential personal identifiers are Social Security, driver’s license, vehicle plate, insurance policy, financial account, and credit card numbers. The burden of keeping this information out of the court’s records falls on the filing party.
  • Documents and reports admitted into evidence or attached to a motion or pleading, including medical, psychiatric, and psychological reports, tax returns, and financial records and reports, are subject to public access.
  • Family Division records (i.e divorce cases) should be viewed differently from records in other court divisions because Family Division matters involve children whose confidentiality should be protected. Thus, reports, such as medical and psychological reports in dissolution and non-dissolution matters dealing with custody or visitation of children should not be disclosed to the public. Even evaluative reports of parents in these cases should be treated as confidential given the potential harm to the child. The Family Practice Committee should be asked to consider whether other documents in dissolution and non-dissolution matters that involve children should also be made confidential.
  • The committee recommended making the Family Part Case Information Statement filings and attachements confidential.
  • Civil judgments posted on the Internet should include full home address and date of birth for purposes of identification.
  • The definition of court record in the revised public access rule should state that surrogates’ judicial records are court records subject to public access. The surrogate handles administrative matters on such items for the court as probate and wills, guardianship, and adoptions.
  • The public access rule should allow parties and interested persons to request that documents improperly submitted to the court be removed from the court file.
  • The Judiciary should educate the public and the bar about the presumptively open nature of court records. Every person who comes into contact with the courts should be put on notice that information provided to the Judiciary may be disclosed upon request to others, or on the Internet.
  • Also specifically excluded:
    • Notes, memoranda, draft opinions, or other working papers maintained in any form by or for the use of a justice, judge, or Judiciary staff member in the course of his or her official duties.
    • Records of consultative, advisory, and deliberative discussions pertaining to the rendering of decisions or the management of cases.
    • Records pertaining to mediation sessions and complementary dispute resolution proceedings pursuant to Rule 1:40-4(d) and Rule 7:8-1, but not the fact that mediation has occurred.
    • Guardian ad litem records. (A guardian ad litem is appointed by the court to represent the interests of a person with respect to a single action in litigation.)
    • Family Division records pertaining to investigations and reports made for a court or pertaining to persons either on probation or ordered to pay child support.
    • Records relating to child victims of sexual abuse.
    • Child custody evaluations and reports.

Most of these records are currently available to the public, but to access them now, you have to go down to the courthouse and request them. If you want copies, there is a schedule of costs ranging from $0.75 per page to $0.25 per page depending on how much you’re copying. Access to these records will probably be free to the public on the web.

The report is quite detailed and covers a lot more than I have in this space. The court will be taking comments on the proposed rule through March 24, 2008.

Mediation is a confidential process protected both by court rule and state statue (the NJ Uniform Mediation Act). By mediating a divorce, family or commercial dispute or other conflicts you can keep your personal information out of public view. To find out more about mediation, please feel free to contact me.