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Va. high court considers plan regulating access to court records

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  1. Freedom of Information
The Supreme Court of Virginia will consider proposed rules that would regulate access to – and in one instance require…

The Supreme Court of Virginia will consider proposed rules that would regulate access to – and in one instance require the redaction before filing of – private information in court records.

On Tuesday, the Virginia Judicial Council submitted the rules, which were triggered, in large part, by the increasing availability of court records on the Internet. The 44-page document, drafted by a committee of nearly 30 officials, outlines the reasoning behind the proposed changes.

“Access to court records is becoming easier and much broader now that an electronic format replaces or augments the traditional paper format,” the report states. “These changes have the potential to erode the practical obscurity that individuals identified in court records once enjoyed, and requires a review of access policies to ensure that a proper balance is maintained between many competing and often conflicting interests.

Alan Cooper, news editor for Virginia Lawyers Weekly, said the the proposed rules are largely a consolidation of the various case and statutory law that now exists in Virginia.

 “The real concrete change that matters the most is [the addition to Part One of the rules],” Cooper said. “That rule says you can’t put personal information in a pleading, and that’s a huge change. It’s consistent with what the federal government has done, and I think it’s essential if things go online.”

The personal information at hand includes Social Security numbers, dates of birth and financial account information, according to the report. The parties involved would be responsible for redacting the information and putting it in an attached, sealed addendum, Cooper said.

While the proposed Part Nine rules apply to sealing or unsealing both existing and future court records, this addition to Part One applies to future filings.

Cooper, who has been covering legal issues for 25 years, said the new set of rules and the addition to Part One would give judges and clerks a procedure to follow when deciding whether to seal records.

“It’s a convenient place for judges to get this information because it wasn’t convenient at all before and it’s not an issue judges see very often,” Cooper said. “It gives them a framework of analyzing them. It makes judges think about sealing things willy-nilly.”

The state high court will likely seek approval from legislative members before making a decision, which Cooper said could take six months to a year.