In camera is a Latin phrase meaning “in private” or “in chambers” and it is used in law to refer to proceedings conducted without public access. While many legal systems place an emphasis on holding trial proceedings in public whenever possible, there can be special situations where proceedings need to be held confidentially. A judge can make a decision to hear an entire trial in camera, or to review certain arguments, documents, and evidence in private, while leaving other parts of the trial open to the public.
When the legal system generally requires trials to be held in public, clear justifications must be provided for moving proceedings to a private location. A common argument is a concern about national security in cases where evidence aired before the public could present a security threat. Companies may also request hearings in camera to protect trade secrets, under the argument that being forced to disclose such information in public is damaging and unfair. Confidentiality may also be extended to protect witnesses, including people at risk for their testimony, and young children who might be upset by being in a crowded courtroom with strangers.
Often, an in camera hearing or review is held in the judge's chambers. This environment is less formal and more comfortable for a small group, including the judge, the attorneys, and the witness or object under discussion. In other cases, a judge may make a request to clear the court of all members of the public and press, holding the proceedings in the courtroom.
Either side in a case can make a request to hold an entire trial or a part of a trial in camera, presenting arguments to support the request. The other side can respond if it feels the request is unreasonable. The judge will review the arguments presented and make a decision, considering the law, precedent, and the concerns raised by the parties in the case. If proceedings are held in camera, they are usually still recorded and can be referenced later.
The press and members of the public sometimes protest moves for confidentiality in a trial, arguing that the public has a right to know. Privacy-related decisions are sometimes viewed controversially, and judges may consider the potential for public outcry when weighing requests for in camera hearings and reviews. Ultimately, the judge must consider the best interests of the case and the parties involved when making a decision.