Accessing public records in court files is getting easier in North Carolina with the introduction of a new online eCourt system. This software and technology infrastructure improvement will transition the state’s court system from paper to digital.
The overall concept is beneficial to public users, legal professionals, and court employees when it comes to convenience and access. They will also save time by filing electronically rather than making trips to the courthouse. However, the eCourt system also opens the door for any member of the public to easily access court records and documents at their fingertips. This brings up privacy concerns, especially for sensitive cases within family law and divorce.
As of February 2023, the eCourt system is live in four North Carolina counties. Members of the public in the pilot counties of Harnett, Johnston, Lee, and Wake can now search for case information by name, attorney, case number, and more.
While court filings and case documents have always been public record in North Carolina, the digital files will make access easier. Up until now, members of the public seeking the information needed to go to the courthouse to make a request for the information. This process is involves looking up the case information on a computer and then going to the clerk’s office to request the hard copy of the case file to review documents. The case files typically can’t leave the room, so in order to take copies of the documents out of the courthouse, there is an added fee to have it photocopied at the courthouse.
With this new online portal, any member of the public can easily – and quickly – navigate the system and have access to any court document just because they’re interested or curious. For instance… if a couple resolved their divorce issues through traditional litigation or even commonly used consent orders, their information will be accessible online. It’ll just take a few minutes to see what the parties said about each other in pleadings, how their assets were divided, whether there were claims of infidelity, how much spousal and child support is being paid, details of their custody plan, and other the terms of their resolution.
Despite the many litigated divorce details on the eCourt portal, users won’t be able to find the settlement details for divorces resolved through the Collaborative Process. Since Collaborative Law is an out-of-court alternative dispute resolution process, the settlement agreement is not filed with the court system, doesn’t become a public record, and doesn’t involve a judge. That means that the case details don’t need to be included in the public record. While the Collaborative attorneys for the divorcing couple will still file the paperwork for the divorce decree, the details of their divorce settlement including personal, financial, and/or familial will not appear because they were not submitted to the courts.
Collaborative Divorce, which recently received a Nobel Peace Prize nomination for its ability to provide families the opportunity to reduce the negative impacts of separation by working proactively and cooperatively, has endless benefits in North Carolina. The added privacy and level of confidentiality during the process are just two of the many reasons why it has become increasing popular in recent decades.
Society is curious by nature, and with information easily accessible through online records, it isn’t difficult to learn personal details about a family member, friend, acquaintance, or stranger. For instance, in North Carolina, it only takes a quick search on state government websites to find someone’s information. This includes voter registration status and party affiliation through the Board of Elections or business ownership information and business annual report filings through the Secretary of State. It’s also quite simple to find parcel ownership information with online county GIS systems.
While digital public records are becoming easier to access, for divorcing spouses looking to keep their personal details private, out-of-court divorce options like Collaborative Law may be appealing and could provide added security. It makes sense that a divorcing couple, who is likely already experiencing wide-ranging emotions and uncertainty, doesn’t want the details of their divorce being published online for members of the public to easily access. The innermost details of one’s relationship and divorce don’t need to fall into the hands of the curious.
Another benefit of the privacy of the Collaborative Process is to protect the children involved in the divorce. As children get older, they may become increasingly interested about their parents’ divorce and the details surrounding it. For traditional divorce litigation cases, children are already able to access these documents through a public record request or at the clerk’s office in the courthouse. However, with the eCourt system, it becomes even easier for children of any age and their friends. All they need is access to the internet.
For parents who want to keep the details of their divorce away from and out of the hands of their children, this may no longer be as attainable. This may be especially true if parents don’t want to disclose details to their children that involve sensitive matters. Court records could include specifics on infidelity, domestic violence, and/or court conversations about custody or finances. Parents can make their own decisions about the information they personally share with their children during and after divorce. But, with this new eCourt system these records will now be accessible for court divorces, even if the parents don’t want it to be available to their children. With a Collaborative Divorce, these sensitive details do not need to be included in public record for children to access.
Going even further to keep children out of their parents’ dispute, during a Collaborative Divorce, children are not typically involved during the process. Collaborative-trained attorneys and child specialists examine the needs of the children during negotiations and help the parents to create parenting plans that work for everyone involved. An added way that children are protected during the Collaborative Process is through privacy. The details of their parents’ divorce and the conversations had – no matter how difficult or emotional – during the negotiations will never be disclosed to them by anyone other than a parent.
The Collaborative Process was introduced in North Carolina in the 1990s; however, the state legislature didn’t define the key components of the process until 2003 when lawmakers passed a bill recognizing Collaborative Law as an alternative to court divorce. Then, in 2020, the General Assembly further expanded the process with the Uniform Collaborative Law Act which defines the voluntary process as an option for civil cases, in addition to family law cases. It also outlines beginning and ending points for agreements. With this new addition, privacy can also be maintained for other types of disputes settled with Collaborative Law.
North Carolina Collaborative Attorney Network (NC-CAN) is committed to spreading awareness of the Collaborative Process across the state of North Carolina. Our organization provides resources and education to attorneys, legal professionals, and families. We are proud to have a comprehensive resource guide on our website and all proceeds from the guide support public awareness initiatives for the Collaborative Process. You can learn more about Collaborative Law in North Carolina by visiting our website, www.nc-can.org.
*The contents of this blog are intended to share general information only and should not be construed as legal advice.