Legal Hotline: New Court Access Rules

  • Dec 21, 2017

Melissa Melewsky, Media Law Counsel

Q: What are the new rules affecting public access to trial and appellate court records, and when do they go into effect?

A: The Public Access Policy of the Unified Judicial System of Pennsylvania: Case Records of the Appellate and Trial Courts takes effect January 6, 2018. The new policy will govern public access to trial and appellate court records across the Commonwealth, at the courthouse and online. The policy governs the request and appeal process, fees, and it imposes a number of restrictions on public access.

Public access to court records is guaranteed by the Pennsylvania and US Constitutions as well as common law. Any limitations imposed are subject to challenge for consistency with applicable constitutional standards.

The Supreme Court approved the new policy to provide uniform and consistent access to trial and appellate court records in the Commonwealth. Under the current rules, each judicial district and the appellate courts have their own public access policies, resulting in disparate public access to court records throughout the state. This policy offers the first cohesive set of public access rules for trial and appellate courts in Pennsylvania, and its implementation will not come without some growing pains for the public as well as court personnel.

In some locations, this policy will result in less and more difficult access for members of the media and the public because of new restrictions imposed. However, in some locations it will result in additional public access. For example, in counties like Montgomery where public access to family court filings is currently prohibited, this policy will require the court to provide public access to a wide range of information not previously available. 

The policy divides records into three categories, which will be addressed in detail below:

  1. Records that are never public
  2. Records that are public at the courthouse, but not online
  3. Records that are public at the courthouse and online

I: Records that are not public at the courthouse or online

Records that are never available to the public include “confidential information,” “confidential documents” and a few types of cases that are non-public as a whole. These categories will not be publicly accessible at the courthouse or online. 

Confidential Information

If a court filing contains confidential information, it must be filed separately on a confidential information form, with the information redacted from the publicly available version. 

Confidential information must be redacted from publicly accessible court records, including:

  1. Social Security Number
  2. Financial account numbers (except the last four digits)
  3. Driver license numbers
  4. State ID numbers
  5. Minors’ names and dates of birth, except when a minor is charged as a defendant in a criminal matter
  6. Abuse victims’ address and other contact information

    Note: this provision does not include victim’s name, which is public

    Confidential documents

    If a filing is considered a confidential document, it must be filed using a confidential document form as well as a statement describing the filing. The descriptive filing must be entered on the docket and made publicly accessible. Confidential documents include:

  1. Financial source documents such as tax returns and forms, wage and earning documents, credit card and bank statements, checks, and loan documents

     

  2. Minors' educational records

     

  3. Medical/Psychological records

     

  4. Children and Youth Services' records

     

  5. Marital Property Inventory and Pre-Trial Statement in divorce cases

     

  6. Income and Expense Statement in divorce cases

     

  7. Agreements between the parties as used in 23 Pa.C.S. § 3105 (marital settlements)

     

  8. Information which is restricted by federal law, state law, or state court rule

     

  9. Information presenting a risk to personal security, personal privacy, or the fair, impartial and orderly administration of justice, as determined by the Court Administrator of Pennsylvania with the approval of the Chief Justice. The Court Administrator shall publish notification of such determinations in the Pennsylvania Bulletin and on the Unified Judicial System's website.

    Note: no information currently exists in this category 

    Confidential cases

    The policy also makes certain types of cases non-public as a whole, including:

    1. Cases dealing with birth or birth records under 20 Pa.C.S. § 711(9), except forthe docket and any court order or opinion, which must be public

       

    2. Case records concerning incapacity proceedings under 20 Pa.C.S. §§ 5501—5555, except for the docket and any final decree adjudicating a person as incapacitated, which must be public

       

II: Records that are not available online, but are accessible at the courthouse

The policy also imposes restrictions on information that is available online. The policy does not require courts to provide online access, but for those that do, their access polices must be consistent with the new policy. The following records are available at the courthouse, but not online:

  1. Juror identification information.

    Note: juror names are publicly accessible at the courthouse.

  2. Transcripts except portions of transcripts attached to a document filed with the court;

     

  3. In Forma Pauperis petitions;

     

  4. Case records in family court actions as defined in Pa.R.C.P. No. 1931(a)

     

    Note: family court dockets, court orders and opinions remain publicly accessible online

     

  5. Case records in actions governed by the Decedents, Estates and Fiduciaries Code, Adult Protective Services Act and the Older Adult Protective Services Act

     

    Note: dockets, court orders and opinions in these cases remain publicly accessible online

     

  6. Original and reproduced records filed in the Supreme Court, Superior Court or Commonwealth Court.

II: Records that are always public

  1.  Any information, documents or cases that are not specifically addressed above or in other, more specific law are – and must remain – public. In addition to the new policy, there are a wide variety of laws, administrative orders, court rules and case law that already govern public access to specific types of court records. The court has illustrated many of these more specific laws as part of the commentary to the policy. See page 16

    IV: Requests for access, appeals and fees

    The new policy sets out basic guidelines for making a request and the fees permitted, but considerable discretion is vested in individual courts.

    With regard to requests, the policy allows for oral or written requests, and the policy’s official comments make clear that most requests of a routine nature do not require written formality or other administrative barriers that might discourage public access. Requests must identify or describe the records with specificity so that court personnel can determine which records are sought. Party names and case numbers are not required, but they can be helpful.

    Once a request is submitted, court personnel must fulfill the request as promptly as possible under the circumstances existing at the time of the request. If court personnel cannot fulfill the request promptly or if a request is denied, court personnel must inform the requestor of the specific reason(s) why access to the information is being delayed or denied, and all denials must be in writing.

    Denials can be challenged by filing a motion or application with the court that holds the records.  Appeals will be treated under applicable motions practice at the county level, and application for relief rules before the appellate courts.

    The policy imposes a maximum fee of $.25 per page for printed records, and fees for inspection only are not permitted. If fees for a record are governed by other law, the more-specific fees will apply. For example, fees for copies of appellate court records are governed by 204 Pa. Code § 155.1, which sets the fee at $1.00 per page.

    The AOPC has created a series of videos to address the purpose of the policy and to explain its provisions. You can see the videos here.  

    PNA expects public access issues to arise as the new policy goes into effect, and there will be situations where access is applied inconsistent with the new rules. PNA will track these issues as they arise and provide input from our members to the court system. If you encounter any issues with access to court records under the new public access policy, please call the PNA Legal Hotline at (717) 703-3080 so that we can document the issue and offer assistance.

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