Most civil cases in Texas are open records, meaning that the filings made into the case by either party or the Court itself are viewable by the public.
While this may seem invasive at first, the motivation behind this policy is that an open courts system will keep the judiciary accountable to the citizens it is supposed to be serving.
Categories of Documents in Texas
There are four categories document types:
These documents can be viewed by anyone. Depending on the county they may be viewed as long as they are logged onto the website.
In Harris and Montgomery county attorneys can long onto the website and print uncertified copies for free.
These documents are restricted to the attorneys of record and the parties of the cases only.
In Harris County attorneys use a pin number to verify that they are someone who should have access.
Restricted documents are created when a document is filed and marked as a sensitive data document.
Identifying Certain Documents as Sensitive Data Documents
The process of keeping documents confidential in a divorce begins with stating at the top of each pleading that this document contains sensitive data. Examples of sensitive data include:
- birth dates
- driver’s license numbers
- social security numbers and
- any other pieces of information that is personal in nature
Stating this at the top of a document will not seal a record completely but it will keep these documents from being posted on the website of the district or county clerk’s office.
Additionally, the Final Decree of Divorce offers ample opportunity for a person with the motivation to cause harm to invade the privacy of a person and potentially hurt them a great deal.
Do Not Provide More Information than Needed
A simple method to avoid providing too much information to people who don’t need it is to only identify social security numbers, bank accounts and other sensitive items with only the last three or four numbers of each being used.
This way information can be identified but the full extent of these items can be kept from the general public.
Texas Rules of Civil Procedure
The Texas Rules of Civil Procedure in Rule 76(a) have this concept codified as State law. In some instances, though, the parties to a lawsuit may want their proceedings to be made confidential and may ask the Court to allow this to occur.
The judge will make a determination on whether or not their request will be granted.
Seal documents are not available to view.
Keeping it Confidential
There are exceptions to the above rule that allow a case to be kept confidential.
In Re Bain
In the case, In Re Bain, 144 S.W.3d 236, 241 (Tex. App.—Tyler 2004, no pet.)it was found that family law cases have a lower burden of proof on requests for confidentiality.
In that case it was discussed that documents filed in an action that arises under the Texas Family Code are exempt from the open records requirement that applies to most civil cases in Texas.
The basic rule in this case is that a Court has complete discretion on whether or not to seal the record.
Sealing the Record
Under Texas Rules of Civil Procedure 76(a) court records may be sealed only upon a party's written motion.
Court records may be sealed only upon a party's written motion, which shall be open to public inspection.
The movant shall post a public notice at the place where notices for meetings of county governmental bodies are required to be posted, stating:
- that a hearing will be held in open court on a motion to seal court records in the specific case;
- that any person may intervene and be heard concerning the sealing of court records;
- the specific time and place of the hearing;
What Must be Proven
The standard that a party must meet to keep a record confidential is that in doing so:
- the sealing of the record will not have an adverse effect on the public health or safety of the citizens of this State and
- that the matters involved should not be made available to the general public
- there is no less restrictive means than sealing records will adequately and effectively protect
the specific interest asserted
A protective order is also something that one party can request from the Court or the parties can simply agree to between themselves.
These orders can list the items that are to be kept confidential including particular documents. This type of order will keep particular documents from being posted online.
Texas and Federal Wiretapping Laws
On a completely different subject related to confidentiality, both federal and state laws protect individuals from having their private information accessed by other people- including their spouse.
In a Texas divorce case, for example, where one party is alleging that the other spouse committed adultery it is not uncommon for a person to tell their attorney that they’ve been reading emails or tracking the keystrokes of their spouse in an attempt to catch them in some bad behavior. +
Either fortunately or unfortunately (depending on your perspective) this type of behavior is illegal and can put the persons who initiate it and possibly their attorney in a position of being liable for both civil and criminal penalties. It is understandable that when going through a divorce emotions will be running high and people will want to get an advantage over their spouse.
It is Important to Stay on the Right Side of the Law
However, having a representative available to counsel a party on proper use of technology is crucial to staying on the right side of the law. This means that before installing software on the computer to track the websites viewed by a spouse or sticking a tracking device on the muffler of the family vehicle it is probably best to speak to an attorney first.
Can I Record Phone Calls?
What is allowed under both federal and state law is the recording of telephone calls with the consent of one party to the conversation. That means that a spouse can record any phone call that they themselves are a part of.
Interestingly enough a parent can record the telephone conversation of one of their children with their other parent. The recording party must only have a good faith rationale for doing so and a belief that they are acting in the best interests of the child.
If the reader of the article is familiar with the blog posts from the Law Office of Bryan Fagan, then he or she will know that the best interests of the child standard is one that has been adopted by the Courts of our state as a matter of public policy. It is assumed that parents always act in the best interests of their child and that presumption must be rebutted in order to show otherwise.
Enforcing Privacy Agreements
A settlement agreement between parties can also be sued in order to ensure that the privacy of both parties (and their children) is maintained through the end of a divorce. The parties to a divorce can agree in mediation to a settlement and those agreements are done outside of court and beyond the open records of the courts system.
While a final decree of divorce may be made public, it is possible to draft this document to contain only the basic, boiler plate language that a final decree of divorce must contain to be valid. The actual terms of the agreed decree may be referenced in a separate document that is not made available online for the general public to view.
Confidentiality is one of many wrinkles in the fabric of a Texas Divorce case. With a family and other prior priorities to keep in mind, a person going through a divorce is best served by having effective representation from the beginning to the end of the process. The Houston divorce attorneys with the Law Office of Bryan Fagan value the privacy of our clients and their families and will do everything possible to ensure that their privacy is maintained. To learn more about our office and how best we can serve you, please contact our office today for a consultation- free of charge.
If you want to know more about what you can do, CLICK the button below to get your FREE E-book: “16 Steps to Help You Plan & Prepare for Your Texas Divorce”
Other Articles you may be interested in:
- Can I Sue My Ex for Hacking My Computer in My Texas Divorce?
- Do I Need to Change My Passwords for a Divorce in Texas?
- Legalities of spying on a child’s cell phone in Texas
- Cell Phones, Mail, Computers, Spying on your Spouse, and Privacy Rights in a Spring, Texas Divorce
- Keep it to Yourself: Confidentiality in Texas Divorces
- Dos and Don'ts Regarding Electronic Communications in a Texas Divorce
- Be Careful or Computers and Social Media May Destroy Your Texas Divorce Case
- How Social Media Can Hurt You in Divorce
- Roadmap of Basic Divorce Procedure in Texas
Law Office of Bryan Fagan | Spring Divorce Lawyers
The Law Office of Bryan Fagan routinely handles matters that affect children and families. If you have questions regarding divorce, it's important to speak with one of our Spring, TX Divorce Lawyers right away to protect your rights.
Our divorce lawyers in Spring TX are skilled at listening to your goals during this trying process and developing a strategy to meet those goals. Contact Law Office of Bryan Fagan by calling (281) 810-9760 or submit your contact information in our online form. The Law Office of Bryan Fagan handles Divorce cases in Spring, Texas, Cypress, Spring, Klein, Humble, Kingwood, Tomball, The Woodlands, the FM 1960 area, or surrounding areas, including Harris County, Montgomery County, Liberty County, Chambers County, Galveston County, Brazoria County, Fort Bend County and Waller County.