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How Do I Seal My Chicago, Illinois Divorce Court File?
In Cook County, Illinois, (which includes Chicago) you can’t look at the documents on-line (yet) but anyone can walk to the 8th floor of the Daley Center and look up your case file on the public access computers or request your physical case file from the county clerk…and they don’t even notify the parties or keep a record of who is looking up these files.
The Illinois Clerk of Courts Act states: “All records, dockets and books required by law to be kept by such clerks shall be deemed public records, and shall at all times be open to inspection without fee or reward, and all persons shall have free access for inspection and examination to such records, docket and books, and also to all papers on file in different clerks’ offices and shall have the right to take memoranda and abstracts thereof.” 750 ILCS 105/16(6)
This law seems to say that everything in any court file is accessible but, obviously, some things should stay private like financial details, domestic and sexual abuse.
Illinois doesn’t have a statute or a Supreme Court Rule which states explicitly how to sealing a court file. Illinois courts hav the authority to seal a court file as part of their inherent power to control the records under their purview. Skolnick v. Altheimer & Grey, 191 Ill.2d 214, 231 (2000)
So, you can file a motion to seal your divorce file under the authority of the court itself and the court can issue an order to the clerk to seal that file. The file can only be seen by an outside party after a subsequent order allows the court file to be unsealed.
In Re Marriage of Johnson, 232 Ill. App. 3d 1068, gives us direction on what we need to show the court in a motion to seal a file: 1) A compelling interest that favors restricted access AND 2) the protective order is drafted in the manner least restrictive to the public’s interest.
While the rule that “everything must be accessible” seems very broad, the exception to that rule is even broader.
A “compelling interest that favors restricted access” could be literally anything from “I don’t want to disclose the details of my private finances” to “I don’t want my dog’s name published.” It’s all up the judge and, in my experience, judges take a very liberal view of what can be sealed.
The judge then must determine how much of the file should be sealed. In a divorce case, sealing some of the file but not all of it is typically seen as overly cumbersome to the Clerk of the Circuit Court and therefore the file is usually sealed in its entirety.
Once sealed, a court record stays sealed even if the case is opened again. “Cases and documents within a case identified as impounded, sealed, secured or otherwise confidential in the circuit court shall remain as such when filed in the reviewing courts, and the parties of record shall have the same level of access, if any.” Ill. Sup. Ct. R. 371
There are alternatives to sealing a divorce case file and they are as follows:
1) Draft your pleadings in a vague manner. There is no reason to specify all the details of a relationship in the petition for dissolution of marriage unless you expect to default your spouse and need to prove up those details to the judge and verify that your spouse was on notice of those details. Example: “The parties own a car, a 2016 Chevrolet Cobalt…that shall be awarded to the Petitioner.” It is often enough to simply write, “The parties assets shall be divided equitably.”
2) When completing discovery, it is not always necessary to file a notice of filing every time you request or tender discovery. Typically, evidence such as a time stamp of mailing is sufficient to prove the documents were requested or sent. Notices of filing just create an index of your discovery for the public to consume (along with being costly beyond their original purpose of thoroughness).
3) The final decrees can be incorporated by reference. The Dissolution of Marriage can describe a Marital Settlement Agreement and an Allocation of Parental Responsibilities and Parenting Time without actually including them in the file. The words “are incorporated by reference” are usually sufficient. Just make sure you and your divorce attorney keep a copy!
To learn more about how to keep your Chicago, Illinois divorce documents private, contact my Chicago law office to schedule a free consultation with a Chicago divorce lawyer.