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What are the laws regarding the sealing of family law records in Washington?

Understanding the Sealing of Family Law Records in Washington

In the state of Washington, family law records are generally a matter of public record, meaning that they are accessible to anyone who wishes to view them. This transparency is part of the broader public policy favoring open courts and the accountability that comes with it. However, this principle is balanced against the need to protect the privacy rights of individuals involved in sensitive family law matters. Accordingly, Washington law provides mechanisms through which parties can request that certain family law records be sealed.

The primary legal authority governing the sealing of court records in Washington is found in GR 15 (General Rule 15), which outlines the criteria and process for sealing or redacting court records. Under GR 15, a person seeking to seal a record must provide specific reasons justifying the need for privacy and must also show that any resulting harm from disclosure outweighs the public interest in access to the records.

The process typically begins with a motion filed by one of the parties, asking the court to seal certain documents. The party must provide a strong argument as to why these documents should be kept private, often involving concerns such as protecting minor children's identities, safeguarding sensitive financial information, or shielding victims of domestic violence. The court then considers whether there are compelling privacy or safety issues at stake and whether these issues outweigh the presumption of openness.

Examples where family law records might be sealed include cases where the details within could lead to identity theft or financial fraud if made public. In one historical instance, a Washington court agreed to seal divorce records after determining that the release of financial details could lead to unfair business advantages for competitors.

It's important to note that sealing records does not happen automatically; it requires a judge's order. Moreover, even if records are sealed, they are not destroyed and can be unsealed later under certain circumstances. Appeals and other legal proceedings may require access to these documents, although those instances typically involve additional protective measures.

When considering a request to seal records, courts will also look at alternative measures that might protect privacy without completely sealing documents. Redaction is one such alternative, where only specific sensitive information within a document is blacked out rather than sealing the entire file.

In summary, while Washington State values open court proceedings and public access to court records, it has legal provisions in place for sealing family law records when necessary to protect privacy or safety. These cases are assessed individually, requiring careful judicial consideration and balancing of competing interests.

For detailed information on filing a motion to seal family law records in Washington, General Rule 15 offers comprehensive guidance on this nuanced aspect of family law practice.