We granted a discretionary appeal in this divorce case to decide whether the trial court, after interviewing the parties' two children in chambers without the parties or counsel present, erred in relying on information from those interviews in making a final custody determination and entering the divorce decree, erred in denying the parties and counsel access to the court reporter's transcript of the interviews, and erred in sealing the transcript. As explained below, we conclude that the trial court improperly relied on information that was not available to the parties or counsel and improperly sealed the transcript of the court's in-chambers interviews without complying with the procedures for sealing court records set forth in the Uniform Superior Court Rules. We therefore reverse the trial court's sealing order, vacate the final custody order and divorce decree, and remand the case with direction.
1. The parties married in March 2004 and have two daughters, born in 2005 and 2007. The parties separated in late December 2011 after appellee Angela Altman (Mother) accused appellant Christopher Altman (Father) of twice having their older daughter touch him inappropriately one evening while the parties and the children were watching television together at home. The local Department of Family and Children Services investigated and found the molestation allegation to be unsubstantiated, but Mother nevertheless filed three ex parte applications for temporary protective orders against Father, all of which were dismissed for lack of evidence.
On February 6, 2012, Father filed a complaint for divorce, and Mother then filed an answer and counterclaim for divorce. The trial court appointed a psychologist to conduct a psychological custody evaluation of the family and temporarily awarded Mother primary physical custody of the children with Father having restricted visitation. In May 2013, after an extensive investigation, the custody evaluator submitted her 30-page report, which the trial court sealed from public access.
In September 2013, the trial court held a three-day bench trial, but two months later, the court entered an order saying that it needed more information to decide what was in the best interests of the children. In March 2014, the court ordered the parties to undergo psychosexual evaluations and attend co-parenting therapy and appointed Dr. Allison Hill, a psychologist and attorney, as the court's expert to provide reunification and transition therapy for Father and the children. In July 2014, after reviewing the psychosexual evaluations and therapy reports and holding a hearing, the court awarded Father "temporary sole physical custody" of the children with Mother having limited supervised visitation. The court ordered that the reunification and transition therapy with Dr. Hill continue and conditioned Mother's visitation on her receiving "psychological treatment to address the concerns raised by this Court, including the overprotectiveness in which she parents the children and the lack of insight and understanding that she has presented to each professional appointed to and involved in this case."
In May 2015, based on reports from Mother's therapist, the trial court granted Mother unsupervised visitation but ordered her therapist to prepare a report addressing Mother's "progress in relation to the concerns expressed by the other mental health professionals appointed to and involved in this case." Mother's therapist then filed an additional report. In October 2015, the court set a final hearing for the next month and instructed the parties to appear with the children. A few days before the final hearing, Dr. Hill submitted her fourth progress report to the court, which advised that Father was diligent about the children's treatment and supportive of them and their relationship with Mother, while Mother continued to try to undermine their relationship with Father and to have inappropriate conversations with the children in such a way as to potentially interfere with the children's ongoing development.
At the final hearing on November 4, 2015, the trial court announced its intention to interview each child in chambers without the parties, Father's counsel, or the court reporter hired by Father present.
Shortly after the final hearing, the trial court contacted Father's court reporter and instructed him to prepare a transcript of the in-chambers interviews for the court's eyes only. On November 16, 2015, the court reporter certified that transcript and delivered it to the court in an envelope labeled "HIGHLY CONFIDENTIAL" and "FOR JUDGE BARRIE'S EYES ONLY." The parties were not notified, no sealing order was entered, and the court's docket did not reflect any filing. On December 31, 2015, the court entered a lengthy "Final Order" that granted Mother primary physical custody of the children starting at the end of the school year in June, with Father having regular visitation. The order also addressed equitable division, alimony, child support, and other matters not at issue in this appeal.
On January 5, 2016, the trial court entered a one-page divorce decree, which among other things found that it was in the children's best interest for Mother to have primary physical custody. The next day, an attorney for Father contacted the court reporter, who agreed to prepare a transcript of the final hearing with the exception of the trial court's in-chambers interviews of the children. The court reporter explained that the court had contacted him and obtained a transcript of the interviews at the court's expense and that he had been instructed to mark the transcript "`highly confidential' and for [the court's] eyes only." The court reporter said that he could not give Father a transcript of the final hearing that included the in-chambers interviews without written authorization from the court. Later that day, the trial court signed an order, which was filed a week later on January 13, 2016, concluding that "the within enclosed
On January 29, 2016, the court reporter certified the transcript of the final hearing. The title page says that confidential excerpts have been redacted and included in a separate volume marked highly confidential and for the court's eyes only, and a "Reporter's Note" in the transcript says, "At this point in the hearing, proceedings occurred which have been removed from this transcript per instruction of the Court." Also on January 29, Father filed an application for discretionary appeal, which this Court granted under our former Rule 34 (4). Father then filed a timely notice of appeal. After a lengthy delay, the trial court clerk transmitted the record, including the transcript of the in-chambers interviews and numerous other sealed items, and the case was docketed to this Court's term beginning in December 2016. The case was orally argued on April 17, 2017.
2. This Court and the Court of Appeals have long held that trial courts, in reaching judgments on child custody, cannot rely on evidence that was not available to the parties or their counsel. See, e.g.,
And in its "Conclusions of Law" regarding custody, the court said:
It is apparent from this order, as well as other comments the court made at the final hearing after completing the interviews, that in deciding to switch primary physical custody of the children from Father to Mother in the final order, the court took into account what the children said in chambers. Father and his counsel had no opportunity to review, explain, or rebut that information before the court entered the final custody order and divorce decree — or even now on appeal, as the transcript of the in-chambers interviews still has not been made available to them. Indeed, Mother's brief concedes that "the trial court's own words are sufficient to demonstrate reliance" on the interviews. Accordingly, we vacate the final custody order and the divorce decree and remand the case to the trial court with direction to make a custody determination that is not based on evidence which is not available to the parties or counsel and regarding which they have not had an opportunity to be heard.
3. When the trial court entered the final custody order and the divorce decree, the record in this case did not reflect the existence of a transcript of the court's in-chambers interviews of the children, even though that transcript had been delivered to the court at the court's direction six weeks earlier. It was improper for the trial court to keep this material entirely "off the record." And as with many of the materials sealed in this case, the procedure the trial court subsequently followed in sealing the interview transcript did not comply with the requirements of the Uniform Superior Court Rules.
The sealing of court records is addressed in Rules 21 through 21.6, which were designed to preserve the traditional common law right of access to court records and to establish specific procedures that courts must follow before shielding such records from public view. See
The record on appeal indicates that the trial court here did not hold a proper hearing, after reasonable notice, on whether it should seal the transcript of its in-chambers interviews of the parties' children, and for this reason alone the court's January 13, 2016 sealing order cannot stand. See
The court's conclusory findings that the transcript is "of a nature that [is] protected and privileged from disclosure as public record," and that there has been "good cause shown," are insufficient to support a restriction on public access to court records, much less a restriction on access by the parties litigating the case. See