Access court files, documents and exhibits
Learn what court documents are available to the public and media and how to access them. Read the Ministry of the Attorney General’s Court Services Division Policies and Procedures on Public Access to Court Files, Documents and Exhibits.
Open and accessible court system
Ontario’s court system is based on the fundamental principles of openness and accessibility. In general, most court documents are publicly accessible, unless restricted by a:
- statutory provision
- common law rule
- court order restricts access
The Supreme Court of Canada has held that the courts have a supervisory and protecting power over their records, and as a result, determine rules for public access. The Court Services Division of the Ministry of the Attorney General is responsible for the care and maintenance of court files and documents, with the exception of court files and documents in Provincial Offences courts, which are administered by municipal partners under a transfer agreement. The Court Services Division makes policies regarding the care and maintenance of court files and documents, in accordance with applicable law, and subject to judicial direction.
Each court has jurisdiction over its own records, and all policies respecting access to court documents, files and exhibits are subject to judicial direction. However, legislation and regulations (including rules of practice), existing jurisprudence, and consultation with the judiciary have led to the result that, except in the specific circumstances outlined in this guide, many documents are publicly accessible. Judicial consent is required to obtain access to court exhibits (see Section “Public access to exhibits”).
Timeframes for public access
Timeliness is essential to ensure access to court files and documents. The ability of court staff to facilitate timely access can be affected by various factors. Court Services Division Record Retention Schedules outline the requirements for storing files on-site or off-site. Retention schedules also outline when records can be destroyed or stored by the Archives of Ontario. For example, post court dockets may be destroyed after 3 years.
Where on-site storage is limited, some files may be transferred off site sooner than set out in the Retention Schedules. By necessity, the time required for access to files and documents that are stored off site will be longer than for files and documents stored at the courthouse.
In addition, court staff must prioritize their responsibilities to ensure:
- matters scheduled before the court are proceeding
- the needs of parties, witnesses, interpreters and jurors are met
- judicial direction is followed
Given these priorities, court staff must facilitate access to court files and documents as quickly and efficiently as possible.
Providing information over the telephone
Information from court records that would be accessible to the public at no charge is available over the telephone. Many court records in the Ontario Court of Justice and Superior Court of Justice are accessible at no charge. See section “Fees for public access to court documents” for information about fees to access documents.
Procedures for ensuring public access
Because a court file may contain documents that are not publicly accessible, court staff must ensure that only publicly accessible documents are provided to members of the public for inspection.
In civil and family matters, Court Services Division requires the use of a correspondence pocket in court files. Documents for which public access is restricted must be filed in the correspondence pocket. Court staff must remove the correspondence pocket from the file before providing the file to a member of the public for inspection. For additional information, please refer to section “Other documents Related to Civil Proceedings”.
Copies and photographs of documents
Court staff can provide a copy of any document in the court file if:
- the requester has the right to see the document
- the document can be photocopied
- the requester pays the relevant copy fee
Members of the public can make a copy of any documentation in the court file using their own camera or other electronic device at no charge if they have the right to see the document. The use of photography is limited to the documentation in the court file and must be conducted in the administration area. Please refer to section “Use of cameras, recording and other electronics devices in the courtroom” for further explanation about the use of cameras and recording devices.
Members of the public may have a copy of a digital recording of a court hearing if:
- they have the right to a copy of the recording
- judicial direction is obtained
- they pay the relevant copy fee
Use of cameras, recording and other electronic devices in the courtroom
No cameras (including cell phone cameras) or video recording devices may be used in the courtroom without the approval of the presiding judicial official (s. 136 of the Courts of Justice Act). Photographing of any person in attendance at the courthouse is also prohibited.
For further information about the use of electronic communication devices in court proceedings, please see the Ontario Court of Justice website and the Superior Court of Justice website.