Sealed records are official documents that have been removed from public availability by court order. Courts often require records to be sealed in some cases to either protect the privacy of vulnerable parties or to afford a party to a case a second chance without the stigma of a prior incident remaining in the public realm. The types of records that can be sealed, the procedure for sealing them, and the effect of the seal differ by jurisdiction. Most courts generally allow records to be sealed in both civil and criminal cases.
Legal proceedings have historically been a matter of public interest. Cases are heard “in open court”, and an official record is maintained that, among other things, protects the right of the public to be aware of the content and resolution of legal tribunals. This type of transparency is necessary to the operation of a trustworthy and reliable system of law, but it is not an absolute right.
In certain instances, the rights of involved parties to privacy or the need for secrecy trumps the public’s right to know. Records can be sealed as a matter of course, as a proactive measure by a judge, or by request of a party to an action after demonstrating appropriate cause. For example, sealed records are the normal procedure for certain types of adoptions. A judge might also seal the records in a case of his own accord to protect the identity of a victim or grant the motion of a party to seal records in a case involving a trade secret.
Courts have a particular interest in protecting both minors and victims as well as in enabling cases to be heard without releasing information into the public realm that might lead to irreparable damage to a party’s interests. Sealed records are frequently required in cases involving juveniles to protect their identity and to remove a history of offenses committed while the juvenile lacked majority. A court will also order records to be sealed to maintain a certain level of secrecy in cases requiring witness protection. In cases involving state secrets or national security, the rationale is similar. Releasing the information may cause damage to important interests that need to be protected.
The effect of a court order to seal records differs by jurisdiction. In some places, the records remain sealed unless ordered unsealed by the court. Other jurisdictions destroy sealed records, and the contents are legally considered to have never occurred.