Courts and court records are supposed to be open to the public. The goal is to make the judicial system transparent so it is held accountable for its actions, and to show the public how the courts deal with particular issues. In New York, this was not always the case when it came to family law courts. In 1997, New York State’s Family Courts were ordered to be open to the public; however, a recent article in the New York Times states that now, 14 years later, the Family Courts remain essentially, almost defiantly, closed to general public view.
Why courts are open
Our judicial system in the United States, and certainly in California, is founded on openness to the public. The Star Chambers in England were closed courts notorious for corruption, misuse and abuse of power, which cast doubt on the legitimacy of their proceedings. England’s Star Chambers ceased to exist in the mid-1600s and, for the most part, courts moved toward open proceedings. Although there are exceptions to the courts and court files being open to the public, there is no doubt that fear of similar abuses in closed courts led to the creation of our open judicial system. However, the debate about this openness continues to exist regarding family courts.
Arguments for and against
On one hand it can be argued that keeping our system open and subject to scrutiny will, hypothetically, prevent or lessen abuses in the judicial system. It can also be argued that by allowing the public access to the courts and the court’s files, people will be better informed about the issues before they decide to proceed through the system with their own cases.
On the other hand family courts handle some of the most private matters in life, involving not only the divorcing spouses but also minor children. It can be argued that concerns over privacy issues should outweigh the public’s right to know about these matters. Also, there are serious debates about maintaining privacy of one’s financial information in divorce proceedings in light of the rising identify theft rate.
Options for privacy
While both sides of this argument have credence, I am not writing here to advocate for one side or the other. Rather, I am pointing out that, for now, the system is what it is and your divorce proceeding and the related files (with some exceptions) are open to public view. The public scrutiny may be just what one or both parties want (consider the McCourt divorce). However, if parties do not want their dirty laundry aired for all to see and private affairs discussed for all to hear, then they can opt to handle their matter differently. Disputes can be resolved privately through mediation or collaborative processes, or through the private negotiations between the parties and/or their lawyers. Documents filed in public court can be prepared in a way to protect privacy concerns. All of this just takes cooperation between the parties.
Your day in court
Over the past 17 years, I have sat in many different courtrooms listening to private matters unfold openly as though no one was there listening. I continue to be shocked by what I hear casually revealed in court. Some people clearly do not care about or do not value privacy. Frankly, I feel people who think they want their “day in court” should sit in a family courtroom – which is open to the public – and decide if they would like others to see and hear similar information about themselves. It seems to me that the open-door policy of courts should convince people to choose other alternatives for resolving their family disputes. However, the size of the docket each morning at the courthouse demonstrates that people still want their day in court.