New rule tightens access to country’s court records

The Corte Suprema de Justicia has closed public access a bit more with a new rule on online data.

Unlike the United States, court records in Costa Rica are not open to the public, and only parties to many actions really know what is going on.

The new rules, adopted earlier this year, orders that the name search feature of the judicial Web pages be disabled.

The action stemmed from an appeal by a man identified as Jaime Solano Delgado who did not want his name to appear connected with two penal cases from the 1990s. After accepting the man’s appeal, the high court ratified a broad rule in February.

Other agencies, such as the Patronato Nacional de la Infancia, the child welfare agency, also wants data to be restricted.

Criticism of the action has been raised by Seth Derish, a private investigator who works in Costa Rica and in the United States. He said he was surprised one day when he was unable to obtain the information he needed from the court Web pages.

Lena White Curling, contralora de servicios for the judiciary, said that the court was responding to a law passed by the legislature. That law is No. 8968, Protección de la Persona frente al tratamiento de sus datos personales. That was a measure passed in July 2011 that gave citizens the right to correct errors in data bases and also to have their personal information removed, if they so desired.

While the law was going through the legislature, it did not seem that there was any belief that the judiciary would use it to seal its files. In fact, the law, in its article 8 lists a series of exceptions, and these include the security and exercise of public authority. In all there are at least four sections that would seem to exempt the judicial data base from actions under the law.

Still, the Sala IV found that Solano’s request to remove his name was in keeping with the law.

Derish has said in emails that he needs access to the
online court files to check up on individuals that his clients might seek to do business. There are several private firms in Costa Rica that keep track of court actions, such as bankruptcies. These clearly are subject to the personal data law, and there have been a flurry of cases requiring them to remove information about citizens.

In general, the court system here lacks transparency. Although not connected with the current rule, many investors with Luis Milanes, operator of the defunct Savings Unlimited, would like more information about how a committee set up by the courts to distribute money is operating. The five-person committee is supposed to sell Milanes property and remit the money to the investors. But one of the lawyer’s on the committee has cited court secrecy for not making public reports.

Milanes is benefiting from a Costa Rican law that allows him to make a financial settlement with his creditors to avoid going to jail. This is not an unusual approach in criminal cases here. However, if a case never goes to trial, there is not much of a public paper trail that might benefit persons in the future who are considering doing business with the former defendant.

Until this year such persons, foreigners and Costa Ricans, could count on access to the judicial computer system to at least get a reference number for former cases. Deeper access usually is reserved for lawyers in this society.

Law enforcement and the courts have a unique approach to names and photos here. For example, a judge ruled that no one could photograph and publish the face of Oswaldo Villalobos Camacho when he went on trial for a $1 billion fraud. Only after he was convicted, were newspapers free to publish the photos.

In routine police cases, the Judicial Investigating Organization and the security ministry freely identified those killed or hurt. But suspects are protected to the extent that they are draped with clothing to hide their faces when they arrive for interrogation. Their names must be obtained informally. When someone is sought for a crime, the judiciary asks the news media to publish a photo. But the instant the person is arrested, the agencies ask that the photo not be used.

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