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A Motion to Seal is a legal request asking the court to protect specific documents or information from being accessible to the public. This is often sought when the disclosure of the material could violate privacy rights, trade secrets, or endanger individuals. According to the American Bar Association, sealing court records must balance the interests of privacy with the presumption of open judicial proceedings.
Statistics on sealed cases can be elusive due to their very nature, but a Reuters study found that the federal court system sealed tens of thousands of lawsuits between 2006 and 2016, indicating the frequency of such motions. When a Motion to Seal is granted, the sealed records are only available to the parties involved and the court, ensuring sensitive information remains confidential.
A motion to seal is a formal request that is submitted to the court to prevent evidence and transcripts related to a specific court case from being available to the general public. An attorney who is licensed to practice in the jurisdiction where the case is heard usually initiates a motion of this type, although many jurisdictions will allow private citizens to file the motion through a court clerk. A court request to seal records is common in many situations, especially when the welfare of a minor could be adversely impacted if the court records were made readily available to the general public.
There is sometimes confusion between what is meant by a motion to seal and a motion to suppress. Both types of motions deal with preventing information being readily available, but the motion to suppress is a formal request to a judge to disallow the inclusion of specific evidence in a court case. If granted, this means the judge will not consider the evidence when determining his or her verdict, or allow a jury to hear the evidence if the court case is a trial by jury. In contrast, the motion to seal has to do with sealing court records once a case has been decided.
Most jurisdictions have specific laws and procedures regarding the motion to seal. While processes vary, it is not unusual for a court to require that specific documents be filed with the court clerk before a judge will consider the request to seal the records connected with a given case. Some jurisdictions require that a waiting period must take place between the date that the case is settled and the records are officially sealed. In other situations, the records are sealed as soon as the judge grants the request.
A motion to seal sometimes includes a request to seal the records permanently, or may ask that the court seal the records for a number of years, or until certain events have come to pass. For example, regarding a case in which the evidence involved proprietary business information, the motion may include a request to seal the records until the company chooses to place that information in the public domain. In cases of adoption proceedings, the records may be sealed until the birth parents are deceased, or until the adopted child has reached adulthood.
Several situations may lead an attorney to enter a motion to seal with a court. If the public consumption of the details of the court case are highly likely to damage innocent parties, in particular minor children, the request to seal the court record is often initiated as a matter of course. Should the evidence include data regarding trade secrets that could undermine the welfare of a business or industry, there is a good chance that the record will be sealed upon request. Attorneys are usually well-versed in the policies and procedures that a given court follows when it comes to requests to seal court records, and can advise clients if the particulars of their situation are serious enough to convince the court of the need to seal the records.