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What are Sealed Court Documents?

March 6, 2024 ECFX

What is the Purpose of Sealing Court Documents?

Sealing court documents refers to the process of restricting access to specific legal documents or court records, making them confidential and not accessible to the public or unauthorized individuals. This action is typically taken for sensitive or private information that, if disclosed, could cause harm to individuals, businesses, or other entities involved in a case. Sealing court documents is a discretionary power granted to judges and is usually done through a court order.


What is the Purpose of Sealing Court documents?

  1. Protection of Privacy: Sealing documents helps protect the privacy of individuals involved in legal proceedings. This is particularly important when cases involve sensitive personal information, such as medical records, financial details, or other private matters.

  2. Preserving Trade Secrets: In business-related cases, sealing court documents may be necessary to safeguard trade secrets or proprietary information. This ensures that sensitive business information is not disclosed to competitors or the public.

  3. Protecting National Security: In cases involving national security concerns, certain documents may be sealed to prevent the unauthorized disclosure of information that could compromise the safety and security of a country.

  4. Minimizing Prejudice or Harassment: Sealing documents can be used to prevent the release of information that may lead to prejudice or harassment against individuals involved in a legal case, especially in sensitive matters like family law or criminal cases.

What is the Importance of Confidentiality in Legal Proceedings?

  1. Encourages Openness: Confidentiality fosters an environment where parties can freely and openly discuss their case details without fear of public exposure. This openness can help facilitate a more thorough and honest legal process.

  2. Protects Sensitive Information: Legal matters often involve personal and sensitive information. Confidentiality safeguards this information from public scrutiny, preserving the dignity and privacy of individuals involved.

  3. Preserves Fairness: Keeping certain information confidential can contribute to maintaining a fair and impartial legal process. Unrestricted access to sensitive details could potentially influence public opinion, jurors, or other stakeholders.

  4. Encourages Cooperation: Parties involved in legal proceedings may be more willing to cooperate and negotiate if they feel that sensitive information will be treated confidentially. This can lead to more effective dispute resolution.

How to Get Court Documents Sealed:

  1. Identify Sensitive Information:

    • Determine which specific documents or information within documents need to be sealed. This could include personal information, trade secrets, or other confidential details.

  2. Understand Local Rules and Procedures:

    • Familiarize yourself with the local court rules and procedures regarding sealing documents. Each jurisdiction may have specific requirements and processes.

  3. Draft a Motion or Request:

    • Prepare a formal written motion or request to seal the documents. Clearly state the reasons for the request and the specific legal basis for sealing the information. Include references to relevant statutes or case law.

  4. File the Motion with the Court:

    • File the motion with the court where the case is being heard. Follow the court's filing procedures, including providing the required number of copies and paying any necessary filing fees.

  5. Serve Notice to Other Parties:

    • Serve notice of the motion to all parties involved in the case. This ensures that everyone has an opportunity to respond to the request to seal documents.

  6. Request a Hearing (if required):

    • In some cases, the court may require a hearing to discuss the motion to seal. If so, request a hearing date and ensure that all parties are notified.

  7. Attend the Hearing:

    • If a hearing is scheduled, attend and present your case to the court. Be prepared to articulate why sealing the documents is necessary and how it aligns with legal standards.

  8. Court Decision:

    • The court will consider the motion, any responses from other parties, and arguments presented at the hearing. The judge will then issue a decision either granting or denying the request to seal the documents.

  9. Prepare an Order:

    • If the motion is granted, prepare a proposed order for the judge's signature. The order should outline which specific documents or information are to be sealed and for what duration.

  10. File the Order:

    • File the signed order with the court clerk. This document officially seals the specified documents in accordance with the court's decision.

Criteria and Requirements for Filing a Request:

  1. Legal Basis:

    • Clearly establish a legal basis for sealing the documents, such as protecting privacy, preserving trade secrets, or addressing national security concerns.

  2. Specificity:

    • Clearly identify the specific documents or information to be sealed. Vague or overly broad requests may be rejected.

  3. Notice to Other Parties:

    • Serve notice of the motion to all parties involved in the case, allowing them an opportunity to respond to the request.

  4. Public Interest Consideration:

    • Courts often consider the public interest in access to information. The requester must demonstrate that sealing the documents is necessary and that the benefits outweigh the public's interest in transparency.

  5. Alternative Measures:

    • Courts may inquire about alternative measures that could protect sensitive information without sealing documents entirely. Be prepared to address this issue in your motion.

  6. Hearing Requirement:

    • Some jurisdictions may require a hearing for sealing motions. If so, follow the court's procedures for requesting and conducting a hearing.

  7. Compliance with Local Rules:

    • Adhere to all local court rules and procedures for filing motions, including formatting, filing fees, and other requirements.

It is essential to consult with a legal professional or review the specific rules of the relevant jurisdiction, as procedures and requirements may vary.

Are Attorneys Allowed to View Sealed Court Documents?

Access to sealed court documents is generally restricted, and attorneys must follow specific procedures to obtain permission to view such documents. The rules regarding access to sealed court documents can vary based on jurisdiction and the nature of the case. 

Access to Sealed Court Documents:

  1. Judicial Personnel:

    • Judges and court personnel typically have access to sealed court documents to facilitate the administration of justice.

  2. Attorneys of Record:

    • Attorneys who are actively involved in the case, known as "attorneys of record," may be granted access to sealed documents. However, they often need to file a motion or request with the court to obtain permission.

  3. Parties to the Case:

    • Parties involved in the case, such as plaintiffs and defendants, may be allowed access to sealed documents. Like attorneys, they may need to seek court approval.

Restrictions and Permissions for Attorneys:

  1. Filing a Motion for Access:

    • Attorneys seeking access to sealed court documents typically need to file a motion with the court. The motion should explain the specific reasons for the request and how access to the sealed information is essential for the proper representation of their client.

  2. Demonstrating Relevance:

    • Attorneys must demonstrate that the sealed information is relevant to the case and necessary for the presentation of their client's legal arguments. General curiosity or a desire for additional information may not be sufficient grounds.

  3. Protecting Confidentiality:

    • Attorneys may be required to provide assurances that they will maintain the confidentiality of the sealed information and not disclose it to unauthorized parties.

  4. Limited Disclosure to Clients:

    • Even if attorneys gain access to sealed documents, there may be restrictions on how much information they can share with their clients. Courts may impose limits to protect sensitive information and the interests of other parties.

  5. Confidentiality Orders:

    • Courts may issue confidentiality orders outlining the specific terms and conditions for accessing and using sealed information. Attorneys must comply with these orders to avoid sanctions.

  6. In Camera Review:

    • In some cases, a judge may conduct an in-camera review, where they personally examine the sealed documents to determine their relevance and whether access should be granted to the attorneys involved.

  7. Public Interest Consideration:

    • Courts may consider the public interest in access to information when evaluating requests for access to sealed documents. Attorneys must address this aspect in their motions.

  8. Potential Sanctions:

    • Attorneys who violate court orders or misuse sealed information may face sanctions, including fines, reprimands, or even disciplinary action by their state bar association.

How Long Are Court Documents Sealed?

The duration for which court documents are sealed can vary significantly and is typically determined by the court that issues the sealing order. The length of the sealing period is influenced by various factors, and the rules may differ depending on the jurisdiction and the nature of the case. 

Duration of the Sealing Period:

  1. Temporary Sealing:

    • In some cases, the sealing of court documents may be temporary, with a specific end date or event triggering the unsealing. For example, documents might be sealed during ongoing investigations, negotiations, or sensitive phases of a legal process.

  2. Indefinite Sealing:

    • In other instances, court documents may be sealed indefinitely, especially when dealing with sensitive information that warrants long-term protection, such as trade secrets, confidential business information, or certain aspects of a person's private life.

  3. Review and Reevaluation:

    • Courts may include provisions in the sealing order that allow for periodic review and reevaluation of the need for continued sealing. This ensures that the sealing remains justified over time.

Factors Influencing the Length of the Sealing:

  1. Nature of the Information:

    • The type of information contained in the court documents plays a crucial role. Sensitive personal information, trade secrets, or national security-related details may warrant longer periods of sealing.

  2. Privacy Concerns:

    • Cases involving significant privacy concerns, such as those related to family matters or medical records, may result in longer periods of sealing to protect the individuals involved.

  3. Trade Secrets and Business Interests:

    • Sealing may be extended for the protection of trade secrets, proprietary business information, or financial data. The court may balance the need for transparency with the necessity of safeguarding competitive interests.

  4. National Security:

    • In cases involving national security concerns, the sealing period may be extended to prevent the unauthorized disclosure of classified or sensitive information.

  5. Court Orders and Rulings:

    • The specific orders and rulings issued by the court will dictate the duration of sealing. Courts may outline the conditions for unsealing or specify the circumstances under which the sealing period can be extended or lifted.

  6. Consent of the Parties:

    • If all parties involved in the case agree to the duration of sealing, the court may take their consent into consideration when issuing orders.

  7. Public Interest:

    • Courts may weigh the public interest in access to information when determining the length of the sealing period. If there is a significant public interest, the court may lean towards a more limited duration of sealing.

  8. Court Discretion:

    • Ultimately, the court has the discretion to decide the length of the sealing period based on the circumstances of the case and the balancing of various interests.

ECFX's Policy on Federal Credentials & Sealed Documents

At ECFX, we are fully committed to safeguarding the confidentiality of sealed documents and private information in accordance with the federal courts' standards. Unlike other providers who adopt an open source approach and freely distribute court documents to other firms and the general public, ECFX takes a proactive approach to prioritize the security and privacy of your valuable information. Discover more about our policy below.

View ECFX's Policy On Sealed Documents

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