Online Access to Court Records

Some courts put parts of their court records online. The noble reason for this sort of availability is transparency and oversight. Another reason is simple convenience, for both users of records as well as their custodians. When a lawyer or party needs to find some document, or learn some information from the docket (when is the next hearing? have motions been filed?) they can just look it up online.

But there are of course privacy issues. It creates a whole host of problems. Court records are going to have detailed information on something that went wrong in our lives. A dispute that could not be settled some other way. In the domestic violence and family law cases, these could be quite embarrassing. For a long time these records were public, but also obscure and that is what protected them.

Here in DC, the courts are considering putting domestic violence and domestic relations cases online. I’m part of the team — along with the domestic violence community –that is putting together a response to this proposal. Off the top of my head, I started to think of a few direct issues:

  • Identity theft. The personal information in court records includes lots that an identity thief would like: names, dates of birth, social security numbers, maiden names, addresses. Maricopa County, AZ put lots of its records online. And now it has one of the highest rates of identity theft in the nation.
  • Stigma. Even if one is the aggrieved, or innocent party, there will still be a stigma associated with the case by those who don’t understand all the details. One that isn’t really fixed by adding details.
  • Data Brokers. Our data is mined. It is used to compile dossiers and sold for the purposes of profiling, background checks, credit reports, telemarketing, and other purposes. Many of them do this with public records and therefore claim that you can’t opt-out of their collection. Brokers go to courts and get these records now. But putting records on websites facilitates this, it facilitates the distribution because then the cost of distribution is lower.

The domestic violence advocates I work with have come up with several scenarios where online public access can create safety risks. Often someone with a valid protection order in one state will register it at a new location. This isn’t necessary, but it does make it easier to get the police to enforce it. With an easily found online record, the abuser now knows the location of the protected person. Also, adding to the stigma above: people have misconceptions about domestic violence — blaming the victim, looking at it as a personal failure, even as unable to pay rent or keep a job.

I’m going to keep blogging these issues as the comments develop.

Posted: October 1, 2007 in: