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Regulating the availability of public records online
By Scott E. Blakeley, Esq.

Privacy advocates are concerned that public records are increasingly accessible over the Internet. Anyone with an Internet connection can access public records, no longer having to travel to the courthouse, or state and federal agencies. A search of public records, for example can show the price paid for a house, the names of those assigned to pay child support, and the Social Security and credit card numbers of those who file for bankruptcy.

In an effort toward a consistent state policy for access to electronic court documents, the National Center for State Courts and the Justice Management Institute submitted, The Public Access to Court Records: Guidelines for Policy Development by State Courts. The document advocates electronic access to court records, but seeks to limit access to information that is not accessible to the public pursuant to federal or state law, court rule, or case law.

Privacy concerns have resulted in barring public access over the Internet: juvenile court, guardianship, mental health, criminal, and family law proceedings.

What can be accessed via the Internet is the register of actions, which includes the title of each cause, with the date of its commencement and a memorandum of every subsequent proceeding in the action with its date, calendars, and indexes and other records from civil cases, except those listed above.

Of particular concern to federal courts is public access to bankruptcy filings, because of the large amount of sensitive information contained in these filings, including Social Security numbers, financial account numbers, detailed profiles of personal spending habits and medical information. However, the administrative office of the U.S. courts recognizes that in order for the public to hold the bankruptcy system accountable, access to records that show whether an individual has filed for bankruptcy, the type of proceeding, and the identities of the parties in interest should be available.

A debtor's personal and identifying information and financial account numbers should not be included in electronic or hard copies of filings.

Reprinted with permission from Trade Vendor Monthly Blakeley & Blakeley 2/03

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