Note: This page covers information specific to Massachusetts. For general information concerning access to and use of court records see the Access to Courts and Court Records section of this guide.
For additional information about engaging in journalism in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, please see our printable PDF guide Newsgathering in Massachusetts, co-produced with the Harvard Law School Cyberlaw Clinic.
You have a right to inspect and copy most records and documents filed in Massachusetts state courts. However, your right of access is not absolute, and a court may seal records under certain circumstances. If you are interested in obtaining court records, you should go to the courthouse where the case is taking place and request the records in writing from the clerk of the court (there will usually be a request form). Refer to the Massachusetts judiciary's website to find the locations, phone numbers, and websites for the state's courts. Additionally, see the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court's useful set of Guidelines on the Public's Right of Access to Judicial Proceedings and Records (SJC Guidelines).
As a general matter, you may access docket information, the pleadings and motions of the parties to a lawsuit, decisions and orders of the court, evidence introduced in court by either side, and transcripts of hearings. Other types of records that you can access include the index of the parties in both pending and closed civil and criminal cases, case fields, certain juvenile records, documents filed with the court in connection with a settlement, search warrants once returned to the court, and names and addresses of jurors and jury questionnaires.
Neither law nor court policy require records be placed online. The Supreme Judicial Court has determined that, at least for now, less information should be available online than at a courthouse. See Policy Statement by the Justices of the Supreme Judicial Court Concerning Publication of Court Case Information on the Web. However, the Court also recommends that "some information about every case" should be available such as case captions, party names (though not the names of criminal defendants), docket numbers, assigned judges, case types, attorney information, and some docket entries to be placed online. The website of Supreme Judicial Court and the Appeals Court of Massachusetts features those courts' opinions, docket information including the briefs filed by the parties, court calendars, and webcasts of the oral arguments. For more information, please consult the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press's state-by-state guide to access to court records and proceedings.
Certain categories of records are generally not open to the public including grand jury records, records of dismissed controlled substance cases, records from care and protection cases, and certain financial statements. Other records may or may not be available, such as commitment records, the names of sexual assault victims, and adoption records. You can find a complete listing of which records are open, closed, or left to the discretion of the court in the SJC Guidelines.
Beyond that, the court may impound documents if it finds good cause to do so, after considering "the nature of the parties and the controversy, the type of information and the privacy interests involved, the extent of community interest, and the reason(s) for the request." SJC Guidelines.
A court must issue an order to impound records. If you are denied access to court records, ask the clerk for the order sealing the documents. If such an order exists, you may consider moving to terminate or modify the impoundment to challenge the court's decision. See Uniform Rule on Impoundment Procedure 10. You may also seek review by a single justice of an appellate court. See Uniform Rule on Impoundment Procedure 12. You may also be able to argue you have a First Amendment right to access the record in question. See SJC Guidelines. If you wish to challenge an order impounding court records, you should get legal assistance to determine how best to proceed.