Can We Close the Courtroom When I Testify?

Nobody enjoys court, especially when it involves testifying about personal things such as infidelity in an alimony case or allegations of substance abuse in a child custody trial. Do you have the right to ask the judge to clear the courtroom, closing the trial to everyone except the parties to the lawsuit or their witnesses? Probably not. It is quite rare for a judge in NC to have a proceeding in “closed court.”

The General Rule

In North Carolina family law cases, the general rule is that trials are conducted in “open court.” This means all members of the public have the right to be present in the courtroom during trials, subject to safety concerns such as exceeding the fire marshal’s maximum occupancy in the courtroom. Article 1, Sec. 18 of the Constitution of North Carolina clearly states “All courts shall be open. . .” While people might think of the press being allowed to be present in the courtroom during trials, the right also applies to family law trials. In NC courts, you generally don’t have a right to privacy.

Exceptions to the Rule?

In France v. France, 209 NC App. 406 (2011), the NC Court of Appeals rejected the argument that there was a constitutional right to privacy in custody cases because children are involved. The Court ruled that the constitutional rights of the public to open court proceedings outweighed any privacy rights of the parties. The Court made some exceptions to the general rule, mainly for children in  adoption proceedings or “where a child is testifying about alleged abuse that child has suffered. . .” which would certainly involve testimony of rape, molestation or incest. France at page 417. When you file a family law case such as child custody or alimony, the lawsuit is generated by a document called a complaint, which is filed at the court-house. The on-going documents that are filed in the case, such as counterclaims or motions, are also public record.

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