Note: This page covers information specific to Washington. For general information concerning access to and use of court records see the Access to Courts and Court Records section of this guide.
You have a right to inspect and copy most records and documents filed in Washington 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 Washington judiciary's website to find the locations, phone numbers, and websites for the state's courts.
Alternatively, you may be able to access court records online. Refer to a local court's website and check to see if the court provides online access. Courts with online access usually provide access to docket sheets, however, documents filed with the court rarely are accessible. 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.
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, among other items found in a case file. The procedure for requesting these records varies from court to court; each court can provide access only to its own records. However, you will not be able to access court records that contain highly sensitive material, such as adoption records, mental illness commitment records, and alcohol and drug treatment commitment records. Other types of records, such as those concerning family law cases, are restricted; in order to get access you must file a Motion and Declaration to Allow Access to Records Under GR 22(h)(2) with the court.
You may be denied access to a court record for a variety of reasons including: (a) data availability; (b) a lack of specificity in your request; (c) potential invasion of privacy created by release of records containing personal or highly sensitive information; and (d) potential disruption to the business of the courts. In order to make sure that the court's denial is not based on the lack of specificity in your request, make sure that you comply with the Judicial Information System Committee Rules. Under Rule 15, you must include a statement of the intended use and distribution, the type of information needed, and identifying information about the applicant in your written request.
Keep in mind that Washington courts will consider several factors in deciding to allow or deny a request for documents containing highly sensitive information, however there are limits on who can request this information. Court rules specify that "a public purpose agency may request court records not publicly accessible for scholarly, governmental, or research purposes where the identification of specific individuals is ancillary to the purpose of the inquiry." GR31(f). A "public purpose agency" for this purpose includes nonprofit organizations, and thus may be applicable to you. The court will then balance the possible benefits to the operation of the judiciary and the risks created by permitting access, and will also consider whether access will fulfill a legislative mandate.
If the balancing test comes out in your favor, you must sign a dissemination contract before accessing the restricted records. The dissemination contract obligates you to protect confidential information, including the identity of individuals. It also prohibits you from making copies of the records.
You can appeal a denial of a request for information maintained at the state level to the Judicial Information System Committee, which consists of a number of state judges as well as three members outside of the judiciary. If you want to challenge the Committee's decision, you should get legal assistance to determine how best to proceed.