DATE: February 21, 2006                                        CONTACT: Laura Kiernan
                                                                                                      Judicial Branch
                                                                                                      Communications Director
                                                                                                      271-2646 ext 359

 

Recommendations on Public Access to Court Records
 Sent to Supreme Court

Task Force Cites Need to Balance Open Records and Individual Privacy

CONCORD—Recognizing that the “transition from a paper age to the electronic age presents new challenges,” the Supreme Court Task Force on Public Access to Court Records issued a preliminary report today recommending guidelines and rules for the court system to follow as technology greatly increases the potential for access to information. The full report is available at www.courts.state.nh.us/press/publicaccess.pdf

                 The Task Force, whose members included judges, lawmakers, journalists and members of the public, said that, in making its recommendations, it worked to balance New Hampshire’s longstanding commitment to a policy of open government records with the recognition that people who come into the court system should not have their privacy “unduly” compromised.

                  “These are complex questions and our report recognizes that there are strong opinions on both sides,” said Superior Court Associate Justice Larry M. Smukler, who chaired the Task Force. “This report is an important start but there is much more work to do.” The New Hampshire court system in January began to roll out a new electronic case management system and projects that state court records will be available on the Internet in two to three years.

                  In a letter to the Supreme Court, Smukler, who chairs the Court Technology Committee, cited the New Hampshire court system’s well-established commitment to public access to judicial proceedings and the principle that “transparency serves judicial accountability.” But, Smukler wrote, “At the same time, the court has recognized that technological advances offer new promises and new dangers.”

                 The potential for ready access to court records, through the Internet, at any time, from any location, has prompted courts across the country to establish rules and policies on access to court records in the electronic age. The New Hampshire Supreme Court convened its Task Force in June 2004 to generate public discussion and analysis of the differing views on access to court records. "Only by inviting comment from people with different perspectives will we be sure the Court has the benefit of a complete and public discussion of these important issues," Chief Justice John T. Broderick Jr. said at the time.   

             The New Hampshire Task Force based its work on model guidelines for public access to court records that were developed by the Conference of Chief Justices and Conference of State Court Administrators, the leading organizations nationwide for consideration of policy and administrative issues of mutual importance to state courts.

         A drafting committee, composed of Task Force members, reviewed and discussed the guidelines, considered whether they should be accepted or modified for adoption in New Hampshire and then presented their findings to the full Task Force. The report issued today includes discussions of majority and minority views on the proposed guidelines.

               The Task Force recommendations pertain primarily to electronic case docketing information, which includes names of litigants, facts on the status of a case, such as judgments and orders, and court calendars. The Task Force deferred making comprehensive recommendations on public access to pleadings, such as copies of lawsuits filed and responses, because the court system is some time away from either accepting electronic filings or converting paper filings to electronic images.

               The Supreme Court will now review the report. Any additions or revisions to the court’s rules on public access to court records, including the ones recommended in the Task Force report, would have to be approved first by the Advisory Committee on Court Rules, which would hold public hearings on any proposed changes, and accept written comments. The rules committee would then make its recommendations to the Supreme Court.

               Summary of the Task Force decisions and recommendations:

 

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