How to Protect Your Privacy in Court Files
Updated September 2022
Washington court rules give the public broad access to documents filed with state courts. At the same time, they try to give people involved in court cases some privacy. This memo explains what information you can keep private, and how you do so.
Access to Court Records: General Rule 31
General Rule 31 of the Washington Court Rules, also called GR 31, allows the public to access most court records, unless a specific law, rule, or order restricts that access. GR 31 covers both paper copies in the courthouse and electronic copies on the Internet. The “access” allowed includes either viewing a record or getting a copy of it.
What Court Records are NOT Available to the Public?
The following types of case records are not available to the public:
Confidential name changes
Juvenile non-offender records (dependency, truancy, at- risk youth, child in need of services, termination of parental rights, and developmental disability placement)
Paternity (except for final orders)
Mental illness commitment records
Alcohol and drug treatment commitment records
Court records sealed by a judge’s order
These records are automatically “sealed” by the court. No one has to file a special motion to keep these records private.
What Privacy Protection Can I Get from GR 31?
If you are a party in a legal case in Washington and you file a document with the court, you have some right to privacy under GR 31. But you must be the one to protect your own privacy and the privacy of others by taking advantage of the protections offered by GR 31 and following the steps outlined in this memo.
GR 31 says you CANNOT include certain “personal identifiers” (listed below) in any document you file with the court “unless necessary or otherwise ordered by the Court.” And, if such information has been included, it is your responsibility, or your lawyer’s, to “redact” it (black it out or delete it) before the document is filed. The rule applies to forms, exhibits, and declarations, as well as documents. It applies to all state courts in both civil and criminal cases.
NOTE: Administrative records (records kept by government agencies, not courts) are NOT covered by this rule. Administrative records, however, are not usually available to the public.
Which Personal Identifiers Need to be Redacted?
Social Security Numbers: If someone’s social security number must be included in a document, you must only give the last four digits of that number.
Financial Account Numbers: If financial account numbers are relevant and should therefore be identified, you must include only the last four digits. Examples of financial account numbers include credit card account numbers and bank account numbers.
Driver License Numbers: You must black out or delete all driver license numbers.
What Happens If I Do Not Redact these Personal Identifiers?
If you file a document showing someone’s personal identifiers, that person can ask a judge to order that the information be redacted, and you might have to pay for it, including lawyer’s fees and court costs. A Court Clerk will NOT review the documents you file to make sure you have redacted all personal identifiers.
Sealing and Redacting Court Records: General Rule 15
General Rule 15 of the Washington Court Rules, also called GR 15, tells you how to get court records sealed, or get specific information in those records redacted, to protect your privacy. It also tells you how to get sealed records unsealed. The rule applies to all records from any court, in any civil or criminal case, and whether the records are paper or electronic.
NOTE: There are no self-help materials for filing a motion to seal, redact, or unseal court records. You will probably need a lawyer to help you.
What Happens When a Court Record Is Sealed or Information Is Redacted?
When a whole court file is sealed all the information in the file, or documents added later to that file, is secured from public access. Generally the court index will show that the file exists, including the names of the parties, the type of case, and a notation “case sealed.” The public can also see the court order that sealed the case.
When a particular court document is sealed it is removed from the court file and a filler sheet is inserted, showing that the document is sealed. The sealed document is secured from public access.
When information is redacted from a court document, the original document is removed from the court file and secured from public access. Then a copy of the document with the private information blacked out or erased is put in the court file.
How Can I Get a Court Record Sealed?
To get a court record sealed, you must bring a motion – an official request – before a judge. In the motion, you must convince the judge that you have serious privacy or safety concerns that outweigh any public interest in having access to those records. If your motion is granted, the judge can order a whole court file, or a particular document, sealed.
When Will a Judge Redact Information from a Court Record?
If the judge decides that only some of the information in a document should be kept from public access, the judge will protect only that information, not the whole document. He or she will order you to prepare a version of the document that blocks out the protected information but leaves the rest available to the public. This will be filed in the court records, along with notice that it is a redacted version. The original document will be sealed.
Can I Get a Court Document Unsealed?
A judge can order documents in a civil case be unsealed if all parties agree, or if you prove that the original reason for sealing the documents no longer exists.
Access to Family Law and Guardianship Court Records: General Rule 22
If you are involved in a family court or guardianship court action in Washington State, you have some special privacy protections. When you go to court to dissolve your marriage (divorce), dispute child support, dispute a claim for non-parental custody, or determine a child’s paternity, for example, you must complete “pattern” forms – forms that everyone going through that family law action must fill out and file with the court. These forms can protect you against possible identity theft. They keep the public from seeing some personal identifiers (listed below) in information that you have to share with the court.
The law that creates this protection for family court records is General Rule 22 of the Washington State Court Rules, also called GR 22.
What Personal Identifiers Can Be Protected?
These are the personal identifiers that should be sealed from public access in family court matters:
Your social security number
Your driver license number
Your telephone number
Your financial account numbers
The social security number/s of your child or children
The date/s of birth of your child or children
Where Can I Get the Pattern Forms?
You can get forms from the Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC), either in person, by mail, or online:
- Confidential Information Form: FL All Family 001 | RCW 26.23.050; 26.50.160; GR 22 | Mandatory Form
- Addendum to Confidential Information Form: FL All Family 002 | RCW 26.23.050 | Mandatory Form
- Sealed Financial Source Documents (Cover Sheet): FL All Family 011 | GR 22(b)(8), (g) | Mandatory Form
- Sealed Personal Health Care Records (Cover Sheet): FL All Family 012 | GR 22(b)(3), (g) | Mandatory Form
- Sealed Confidential Reports (Cover Sheet): FL All Family 013 | GR 22(e), (g) | Mandatory Form
Again, before you buy or use any pattern form, make sure you have the newest version. See Forms and Formatting below to learn when these forms were last updated and how to get them. You will find the date the form was last updated in the lower left corner of the form.
IMPORTANT: Different county courts may have different rules for how you must file forms and documents. Some have the option of filing either electronically or in paper. Others you must file in paper. If you are filing paper copies with the court, you may need to file two copies of the cover sheets with the court clerk. One copy will go in the general court file, which the public may access, to show that the court has received these documents. The other copy, along with your sealed documents, will become part of your sealed file. Check your local court rules or ask the family law facilitator or courthouse facilitator before filing to make sure.
How Will the Court Protect My Personal Identifiers?
In a family law or guardianship case, you must complete the Confidential Information Form and file it with your petition or response. You also must file the Addendum to Confidential Information Form if you have more than two children, or if there is more than one petitioner or more than one respondent.
Your pleadings, such as your Petition for Dissolution or Petition to Modify Child Support, will still be part of the public record. However, you should NOT include personal identifiers when you complete the pattern forms for these pleadings. Your Confidential Information Form, which does contain these identifiers, will be sealed from public access, including access by your opposing party. Court officials, however, can see this information when they need it. This process helps balance the public’s right to look at court records with your need to protect personal privacy.
What About My Financial Information?
You may also have certain financial documents sealed from the public by completing the Sealed Financial Source Documents (Cover Sheet). Documents that may be sealed using this form include the following:
Income tax returns
W-2s and schedules
Credit card statements
Loan application documents
Retirement plan orders
Other financial information sealed by court order
What About Health Care Records?
You may have health care records sealed from the public by completing a Sealed Personal Health Care Records (Cover Sheet) form and marking the records “sealed,” as the form tells you to do.
What About Confidential Reports?
In many family law cases, people file reports to the court, such as parenting evaluations, domestic violence assessments, risk assessments, Child Protective Services reports, sexual abuse evaluations, and reports from the Guardian ad Litem or Court-Appointed Special Advocate. These reports are filed as two separate documents, one public and one sealed. The public document only lists the information that was reviewed, the people who were contacted, any tests that were conducted or reviewed, and the evaluator’s conclusions and recommendations. The sealed documents are filed with a cover sheet and include all the details of the evaluation and the reasons for the conclusions.
What About My Home Address?
GR 22 does not make you give a residence address (the address where you live), but you must give an address where you can be served court papers, and that address will be publicly available.
GR 22 and the pattern forms are meant to protect your privacy, but are not designed to protect you from domestic violence. For example, other parties and their lawyers in your case will be able to look at the documents that you or an evaluator file (except the Confidential Information Form and some other court forms). This includes financial source documents and evaluator reports that are sealed under this court rule. Often these documents, such as bank statements, include your residents address. Therefore, if you are concerned about your safety or the safety of your children, you can redact address information from documents you file under any of the cover sheets included in this packet.
If you need an address where you can safely be served court papers, the Address Confidentiality Program (ACP) may be able to help.
What About Other Kinds of Personal Information?
The public does not have access to the following family court records:
Confidential Information Form
Sealed Financial Source Documents
Domestic Violence Information Form
Notice of Intent to Relocate
Vital Statistics Form
Law Enforcement Information Form
Foreign Protection Order Information Form
Sealed Personal Health Care Records
Sealed Retirement Plan Order
Sealed Confidential Reports
Personal information sheets needed for the Judicial Information System (the court’s case management program)
Other laws keep these documents private, not GR 22.
Does GR 22 Apply to All Court Records?
No. GR 22 does not apply to family law cases filed before October 1, 2001. It DOES apply to family law case records filed on and after October 1, 2001, for both paper and electronic records
Forms and Formatting
All forms filed in Washington State Courts must be one-sided, with a 3-inch margin on the top of the first page and a 1-inch margin on all other sides. If the forms you print out from the links below are not formatted correctly (because of a copier mistake, for example), you can get copies of these forms from the Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC). Many courts also offer an electronic filing option. If you do not have access to the Internet, check with your Family Law Court Facilitator or the Court Clerk, or with the Administrative Office of the Courts forms line to request the forms.
NOTE: The State Court system recommends that all documents filed be on numbered paper (State Court Civil Rule 10). Numbered paper – also called pleading paper – has numbers down the left side of the page. Check the court’s local rules to find out if numbered paper is required. You can buy numbered paper at an office supply store and copy your form onto it.
The Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) website has the most up-to-date versions of the forms.
The confidentiality forms are in the General category under General Rule 22 Forms.
By phone: 360-705-3628 to request an order form to order forms by mail.
Confidential Information Form (FL All Family 001)
Addendum to Confidential Information Form (FL All Family 002)
Sealed Financial Source Documents (Cover Sheet) (FL All Family 011)
Sealed Personal Health Care Records (Cover Sheet) (FL All Family 012)
Address Confidentiality Program (ACP), Washington Secretary of State
By mail: ACP, PO Box 257, Olympia, WA 98507-0257
By phone: 360-753-2972 or 1-800-822-1065 (toll-free)
How to File Forms
Pierce County (e-filing info only): www.piercecountywa.gov/883/Case-Information-Scheduling
Snohomish County: https://snohomishcountywa.gov/5542/Filing-Information
Spokane County: www.spokanecounty.org/1915/Filing-Court-Documents
Other counties: Call your local county court clerk or search online for “Filing court forms in ____ County.”
Washington State Court Rules
This publication provides general information concerning your rights and responsibilities. It is not intended as a substitute for specific legal advice. This information is current as of September 2022. Updated by Chloe Phalan, 09/13/22. Acknowledgements to Alesha Struthers, Lisa Barton, Genessa Stout, Inessa Baram-Blackwell, Anne Bradley Counts, and June Krumpotick for their efforts on previous versions of this memo.
© 2022 Legal Voice — 1-206-682-9552
(Permission for copying and distribution granted to the Alliance for Equal Justice and to individuals for non-commercial purposes only.)