Media Law Handbook

Court Access


7. Can you publish a sealed document?
4. What court documents are public?

5. What court records are not public?

Although the court records described below are not public records, the news media usually cannot be held liable for disseminating information contained in these records.  Generally, court employees and others who have official access to judicial records are the ones who break the law when they release them.  Should you come into possession of the kinds of records described below, you should check with your employer’s attorney.

Adoption records.  Only a final order of adoption or a final order dismissing an adoption proceeding is public record.  The remaining information, such as names of natural parents, is confidential.[65] 

Commitment records.  Generally the public and the news media are not entitled to review court information about individuals who are committed to institutions for the mentally ill.  However, when an individual is found “not guilty by reason of insanity” and is later sent to an institution, copies of the documents introduced in evidence at the automatic commitment hearing are available for public inspection.[66] 

Civil discovery.  See the discussion earlier in this chapter in the section regarding records that are open to the news media and the public.

Juvenile records.  These records are withheld from public inspection by the clerk of court.  A reporter can gain access to them if an appropriate member of the youth’s family, i.e., a custodial parent, gives permission.[67] 

Medical reports.  When a prosecutor, defendant or judge raises a question about a defendant’s capacity to proceed at a trial and a report is subsequently made about his or her health, the report is confidential and not a public record unless it is admitted into evidence.[68]

Presentence reports.  When a presentence report is prepared for a defendant convicted in state court, the report and the oral presentation of the report are not public.[69]  In federal courts, however, prosecutors often file the presentence reports in the court record, and the public has access to them.

Probation reports.  All information obtained by a probation officer is confidential and cannot be disclosed unless a judge or the secretary of correction orders disclosure.[70]

Settlements (non-government).  Settlement agreements in private cases ordinarily are not part of the court record.  However, in some rare instances they become part of the court file, such as when a judge must approve a settlement involving a minor, an incompetent person, or a person who has some sort of legal disability.

Increasingly, lawyers who settle cases and make the settlement part of the court record want to seal the record so the public cannot have access to the substance of the settlement.  This trend is opposed by the North Carolina Advocates for Justice and by news organizations because the sealing of court documents allows the public courts to be turned into private dispute resolution forums.  The effect is to keep from the public information that could help citizens, such as settlements for injuries stemming from the use of defective or dangerous products.

It is even harder for the news media to gain access to settlements that do not become part of a court record.  Because trials are the exception rather than the rule, many important facts and issues involved in legal proceedings are never aired in open court.  When cases are settled, the parties frequently agree to maintain the terms of the settlement and other information developed during discovery as confidential.  Such confidentiality agreements may provide significant negotiating leverage to a party to a lawsuit.  For example, a person who is injured as the result of a defective product and who has discovered particularly damaging documents in the manufacturer’s file may obtain a greater monetary settlement by agreeing to keep the settlement amount secret and to return the documents to the manufacturer.  This is particularly true if other injured persons might have similar claims against a defendant.  There is a strategic value to the defendant in keeping publicity about problems with its products out of the public’s view.  For the most part, these private agreements become matters of contract between the parties.  Court approval generally is not required for the parties to a lawsuit to voluntarily resolve their claims and dismiss their case.  Thus, in many cases, even those without a confidentiality agreement, the public is simply unaware of the terms on which the case was resolved.



[65] See N.C. Gen. Stat. § 48-9-102.

[66] See id. § 122C-268.1(f). (g).

[67] See id. § 7B-3000.

[68] See id. § 15A-1002(d).

[69] See id. § 15A-1333.

[70] See id. § 15-207.

7. Can you publish a sealed document?
4. What court documents are public?

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