This article will explain your rights about inspecting and copying court records in the New Jersey Superior and Municipal Courts.
Do I have a right to inspect and copy records that the courts maintain or keep on file?
Yes. You have a right to inspect and copy records maintained or kept on file by the Superior Court and Municipal Courts of New Jersey. (Certain records that are considered privileged or private may not be inspected and copied.) To help the public get court records more easily, the courts have set up special request procedures. The first step to getting access to them or making copies is to determine in which division of the Superior Court the case was heard.
How is the Superior Court organized? What is the difference between law and chancery?
The Superior Court, which is the trial level of the court system in New Jersey, is divided into several divisions and parts. The two major divisions of the Superior Court are the Law Division and the Chancery Division.
The Law Division breaks down as follows:
- Cases involving the commission of crimes are heard in the Criminal Part.
- Cases that ask primarily for money relief of over $15,000 are heard in the Law Division.
- Cases that ask for money relief of more than $3,000 and up to $15,000 are heard in the Special Civil Part.
- Cases seeking money in an amount of $3,000 or less and landlord-tenant matters involving $5,000 or less are heard in the Small Claims Section of the Special Civil Part.
The Chancery Division breaks down as follows:
- Cases asking primarily for non-money relief are heard in the Chancery Division.
- Cases in the Probate Part deal with the appointment of a guardian for a minor or mentally incapacitated person as well as challenges to the probate of wills.
- The Family Part handles cases arising out of a family or family-like relationship, including child support, custody, divorce, domestic violence, child abuse and neglect, and juvenile offenses.
- Cases asking for non-money relief that do not involve a subject matter that is appropriate for either the Probate Part or Family Part are heard in the General Equity part.
How is the Municipal Court different?
The Municipal Courts in New Jersey are courts of “limited jurisdiction.” This means that these courts hear limited types of cases, usually of a less serious nature, such as motor vehicle offenses, parking tickets, and minor criminal-type offenses such as simple assault or writing bad checks. Municipal Courts also hear cases involving violations of municipal ordinances, such as disturbing the peace or violating building codes.
Are all court records available to the public?
No. Certain types of documents, including criminal and family records about investigations, reports about people on probation, and judges’ trial notes are not available. In addition, a court may order in any case that the record be impounded or kept confidential. Court staff may not permit the public to have access to records protected by court order.
There are also specific rules for each division of the Superior Court and for the Municipal Court concerning specific records that may not be made available to the public. For example, in the Superior Court Civil Division, records about child victims of sexual abuse and civil commitment records are confidential. In the Criminal Division, search warrants, active police investigation reports, records relating to grand jury proceedings, sealed indictments, bail reports, pre-trial intervention reports, pre-sentence reports, and records containing the name of any child victim of sexual abuse are confidential. In the Family Division, domestic and child abuse/neglect records and reports, certain paternity reports, certain types of custody records, income tax returns, financial information, Social Security numbers in certain types of documents, and juvenile delinquency records are confidential. In the Municipal Court, records of programs approved for operation for the mediation of minor disputes, expunged records, and search warrants are confidential.
How do I obtain court documents?
There are three things you must do. First, you must go to the courthouse where the case was originally heard. There is a local county courthouse branch of the Superior Court located in the county seat of each county in New Jersey. For the locations of the local branches of the Superior Court, go to Local Courts in Your County. If the case was heard in a Municipal Court, you will have to contact the Municipal Court clerk in the municipality where the court is located. For information on New Jersey Municipal Courts, go to Municipal Court Services.
Second, fill out a records request form in the division or part of the court where the case was heard. Each division of the Superior Court has a separate records request form that should be available through the case management office of that particular division of the court. The Municipal Court has its own form as well, which can be obtained from the Municipal Court administrator. The records request form asks for name, address, phone number, what type of payment you wish to use to pay for copies, and a list of the documents you wish to copy or review. Providing any additional identifying information you may have will help the staff to respond more quickly to requests. However, you are not required to give a reason for your request.
Third, submit the records request form to the case management office of a particular division or part of the Superior Court or to the court administrator of the Municipal Court.
After filling out the records request form, submit it to the case management office of the particular division of the Superior Court during court hours, normally 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Monday through Friday. If you choose to mail or fax the forms, you must first contact the appropriate case management office or Municipal Court. For a directory of case management offices in local courthouses, go to Local Courts in Your County. In making requests to the Municipal Court, the records request form is submitted to the court administrator. For the location of Municipal Courts, go to Municipal Court Services.
What happens after I make my request?
Upon receipt of the records request form, the records custodian of the division of the Superior or Municipal Courts will notify you that your request is either granted or denied. If the record is not readily available or is stored off site, the custodian should inform you within three business days when the records will be available and what the estimated cost will be to provide the records to you. If the court is unable to fill your request, the custodian should send you a signed and dated copy of the request form stating the reasons why the request cannot be granted.
Do I need to bring anything when I request records?
Yes. You need to bring money to pay the fee for copies, and you may need to bring identification.
If you are requesting copies of court records, you are not required to identify yourself. However, if you wish to review or inspect court records, you may be asked to provide a government-issued identification, such as a driver’s license.
Upon receipt of the records request form, The court staff will advise you of the copy fees and make copies for you. The fees for copying are the same in all divisions. They are as follows:
A deposit of 50% of the total cost of copying may be required for costs that are estimated to exceed $50. The public is not required to pay a search fee to gain access to court records.
- $.75 per page for the first to the 10th page, $.50 per page for the 11th to the 20th page;
- $.25 per page for all pages over 20;
- $5 additional for certified copies (a member of the court staff certifies that the document is a true copy but does not place the official raised court seal on the document);
- $10 for exemplified (certified) copies with official raised court seal. There is no charge for the first exemplified copy of a court record in a case file if it is being requested by a party or an attorney for a party in that same case.
I just want to look at the records. How does that work?
The Superior Court has a basic procedure for public review or inspection of records. The case management office of each division of the court is required to provide an area where the public may inspect records. Before releasing records for review, the staff must examine the record and remove any confidential information. The area may be monitored if such supervision is determined by court staff to be necessary.
Remember, you must bring your government-issued ID if you are inspecting records. If you do not provide identification, access to records may be delayed until a member of the court staff is available to monitor the inspection process. All record requests should be handled in a timely manner. However, he court staff must balance the public’s right to have access to court records against the need to ensure that court operations are not disrupted.
Do I get to see the records right away?
Yes, in most cases. Records that are stored on site should be available for inspection the same day. Production of records stored in other off-site county facilities may take longer, but they should be produced as soon as possible. If a case is an active case and is in use by a judge or staff, there may be a delay in getting the documents or copies of the documents to a requester. Other causes of delay are failing to provide enough information to identify a record, or refusing to provide government-issued identification, which usually results in the court staff having to monitor the inspection. Requesting access to older records will probably result in delay, as they are often located in archives in the state capital. If this is the case, you will have to fill out a special form to be sent to Trenton.
Can I access criminal records electronically? How?
Yes. Members of the public may obtain information about any criminal case that has been filed in the Superior Court by using public data terminals installed in every courthouse. The system was recently upgraded to offer easier ways of searching for records statewide by using a person's name. Users may obtain information on any criminal case anywhere in the state. Criminal court records for cases entered under a specific name are also available electronically. Users may not obtain a criminal history records check; this can only be done by law enforcement. The fees for copies printed from the public data terminals are the same as the charges listed above for copies of documents from case files.
I requested records and received no response. What do I do?
If the court staff expect a delay in responding to your request for either copies of documents or access to documents for review, they must tell you the reason for the delay and if they need additional information before they can retrieve a particular case file.
If you do not receive any response to a request, call the case management office and ask to speak with the division manager of that particular division or part of the court. If the division manager does not respond or is unavailable, contact the office of the Trial Court Administrator for that particular branch of the Superior Court. If the Trial Court Administrator does not respond, contact the chambers of the Assignment Judge for that particular branch of the Superior Court. For locations of the local branches of the Superior Court, go to Local Courts in Your County. In the Municipal Court, contact the court administrator. For the locations of the Municipal Courts, go to Municipal Court Services.
This article originally appeared in the June 2006 issue of Looking Out for Your Legal Rights®.