Keep Your Private Information Out of the Court

In last week’s blog post, I discussed how to maintain privacy from your spouse during a divorce proceeding. But any such proceeding raises a second concern: what about protecting your privacy from the general public?

Litigation is Not Private

The most obvious way to protect one’s privacy is to resolve disputes in a private and quiet manner through early settlement or mediation.  Unfortunately, sometimes an early and quiet resolution does not occur and the parties engage in battle in the court system before they decide it is time to resolve their dispute.  This means, that everything that occurs in the open court is public record. But beyond recording the arguments and emotional statements in the courtroom, the court file also is where people cavalierly reveal their bank account numbers, credit card numbers, Social Security numbers, and other similar information.  It is not surprising that a court file is a goldmine of information for people who want to steal another person’s identity, for creditors and bankruptcy trustees who want to find assets, and for anyone else who could profit from unauthorized access to personal financial data.

How Can Privacy Be Maintained During Litigation?

In California, it is very rare for a public family law court file to be sealed and kept from public scrutiny.  This means, it is incumbent upon the parties to do what they can to protect their mutual privacy while litigating in the public arena.  Here are some ideas:

  1. Redact (to obscure or cover over sensitive information, usually by using a black marker) the bank account numbers, Social Security numbers and other identifying information – whether your information or the other party’s information – on every document submitted as part of the divorce proceeding.
  2. Identify  bank accounts and credit card numbers in documents only by listing the last 4 digits of the account number;
  3. Enter into a Confidentiality Agreement with the opposing side whereby certain documents will only be lodged (placed) with the court, but not maintained in the public court file; or
  4. File a motion with the court asking that a particular document be sealed – which may be more feasible than the rare success at sealing an entire file.

For Everyone’s Benefit

Protecting your own privacy is important for obvious reasons.  It is also important to redact the other party’s information, and not just to keep them from being harmed by an unscrupulous voyeur of court files. The reason is that if you placed sensitive identifying information about the other person into the court file, you potentially could be liable for a security problem.  The issue of liability for placing another’s sensitive information in a public court file is being tested around the country in bankruptcy courts and civil courts.  I was unable to find any legal authority on this topic in family law, but I trust it is only a matter of time before courts start assigning liability, so act cautiously for everyone’s benefit when litigating.