Although the law varies from state to state, most documents filed with a court—as well as settlement agreements and discovery documents that are not filed with the court in which the lawsuit is pending—are court records and are presumed open to the public. This includes documents and testimony that may include confidential, embarrassing, or sensitive information.
But in some circumstances judges have the authority to seal specific documents, or all documents, or to close hearings that would ordinarily be open to the public. And the burden of proof on a party seeking to restrict or seal court records in family law matters is generally lower than in other civil and criminal cases.
Potential reasons for sealing or restricting access to court records in divorce and other family law matters may include (1) protecting the identity of a victim of child abuse or sexual abuse; (2) protecting the disclosure of a spouse’s mental illness or addictions; (3) protecting against the disclosure of serious, false allegations that might otherwise constitute actionable defamation (libel or slander); (4) protecting victims and cooperating witnesses or informants from retaliation; (5) avoiding the release of information that might compromise an ongoing criminal investigation or a defendant’s due process rights; and (6) protecting classified information affecting national security.
Laws regarding the sealing or restricting of access to court records vary from state to state and are usually located in a state’s statutes or rules of civil procedure, as interpreted and applied by the courts in appellate court opinions (common law).