Judicial Records Explained in Full!
Why Are Judicial Records Public Records?
Accessing judicial records and judiciary information is key but usually overlooked aspect of access to information and transparency. While a lot of scholarly attention and legislative efforts focus on promoting freedom of information and access to these records regarding governmental executive functions, a lot less has been done to evaluate access to judicial information.
Building upon recent reports done on the access to judicial information in South American countries the report highlighted the dialogue on access to judicial information through a summary of key principles providing an overview of the current status of access to judicial information across countries in the world.
While many countries enact national freedom-of-information legislation, in many cases the judiciary is not tried by those laws, either in practice or explicitly. Hence for the majority of cases, courts are left to develop their own rules, policies, and practices with regards to access to judicial records and information regarding the judiciary.
Categories of judicial information
Three categories of information apply to judicial transparency. Number one and the most important is with regards to the adjudicative work of the courts. This includes documents filed with the court, transcripts, settlements, opinions, dockets and trial exhibits.
This information could further be categorized based on whether adults or minors are being talked about, or if the information of private nature is involved. This information category usually is the most readily accessible by the public.
The following category is information with regards to administration. This will include information regarding court budges, human resources and personnel, contracts between third parties and the court for maintenance, construction, supplies and organizational matters. Decisions to make this information available to the public usually are made on an ad hoc basis.
The third category refers to judge information. This category includes vacancies, disciplinary matters, selection of judges, salaries, personal finances and the like.
Guiding principles of judicial transparency
As in any easy access to information regime, the transparency concept with regards to the judicial sector needs to be both advanced and accommodate specific interests that could at times conflict. Example – providing access to documents recording criminal cases involving minors implicates privacy issues, while releasing personal information regarding judges could implicate security concerns especially in countries where judges have been attacked in retaliation.
As with the development of access regimes applying to the executive branch, an access regime in the judicial realm must progress the goals of ensuring transparency while improving public confidence, effectiveness, and efficiency of the judicial system. Goals like the following should be considered and balanced when developing a system to provide access to judicial information:
- Ensuring independence of the judiciary
- Protecting media access to courts and the public’s right to know
- Promoting effective administration of justice
- Ensuring fair administration of justice
- Protecting the privacy of third parties and judges
- Ensuring security of parties, participants, and judges in the judicial system.
Transparency helps ensure courts are able to carry out their jobs efficiently and effectively. Quality of justice naturally gets enhanced when the public is aware of the parties being presented to the court, and take issue with misstatements; when media are capable of reporting on the quality and clarity of opinions; when interested parties are capable of making informed decisions whether to become involved or to intervene as friends of the court; and when concern and pressure regarding image could encourage judges to decide cases expeditiously. It might be argued whether transparency might be a distraction through letting judges spend time in deciding if to redact privacy-related information prior to releasing documents to the public or collating personal financial information to disclose.