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Task force recommends three-tiered court access system

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NEWS MEDIA UPDATE   ·   NEW HAMPSHIRE   ·   Secret Courts   ·   Feb. 24, 2006

NEWS MEDIA UPDATE   ·   NEW HAMPSHIRE   ·   Secret Courts   ·   Feb. 24, 2006


Task force recommends three-tiered court access system

  • The public would have varying degrees of access to state court records under a three-tiered system of access recommended by a committee studying the issue.

Feb. 24, 2006  ·   Only certain types of New Hampshire court records — including basic criminal and civil case information, court calendars and dockets — would be available on the Internet under a three-tiered access system recommended Tuesday to the state Supreme Court.

Some court records would be available online, some would be available only in person at courthouses and others would not be available at all under the proposed system, which the New Hampshire Supreme Court Task Force on Public Access to Court Records has worked on since June 2004. State court records are not online now.

“The court has recognized that technological advances offer new promises and new dangers,” Superior Court Associate Justice Larry M. Smukler wrote in a letter accompanying the report. He and others on the task force, which includes judges, lawyers, journalists and members of the public, attempted to balance the state’s commitment to open government with its citizens’ right to privacy, the report says.

The new system would not change the public status of any records. However, it would preserve what is known as “practical obscurity,” the general difficulty of accessing court records that keeps many people from inspecting them.

“Although paper court records are freely available now, a member of the public has to know from the start that the record exists and has to travel during work hours to the courthouse where the proceedings are scheduled or the where record is stored” to view the record, the report says. “Moreover, there is no central repository for all court records — a member of the public has to travel to the particular court where the record is kept.”

Under the new system, records that are available through public computers at one courthouse would be accessible at all courthouses. This should make public access easier while preventing an uncontrollable run on records, the report says. Were the state to post all its records online, anyone could comb through any record 24 hours a day without a specific goal.

A “strong minority” of the task force is against maintaining practical obscurity, instead favoring a two-tiered system in which records are either public or private, with all public records available online.

Joe Magruder, an Associated Press news editor and task force member, told AP he favors the two-tiered system.

“Having only two categories — public and not public — would be more in keeping with the New Hampshire Constitution, which says our state government ‘should be open, accessible, accountable and responsive,'” he said. “The practical effect of making some records available only at the courthouse means the wealthy and powerful will have unfettered access and the rest of us won’t.”

Information that would be available on the Internet includes the names of parties, lawyers and judges in civil and criminal cases, information about expert witnesses, court calendars and dockets, indexes of cases filed with the courts, judgments, orders and decrees, and liens. All other public information would be available on public computers at courthouses or in paper files there.

Some statistical databases would be available online with personal information removed. There would be a 10-day lag before public information is released on the Internet so the parties involved would have the chance to challenge accuracy or request that records be sealed. 

The Supreme Court will now review the task force’s recommendations. A court rules committee will hold public hearings on the subject before making its recommendation to the Supreme Court, a court press release says.

The report notes that committee members did not agree on the issue of access to electronically filed documents, such as copies of lawsuits and responses. Members would like to continue meeting to discuss that issue.

“These are complex questions and our report recognizes that there are strong opinions on both sides,” Smukler said in the press release. “This report is an important start but there is much more work to do.”

The records should be available on the Internet in two to three years, the release states.

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