Court records are public documents. Members of the public now have access to most court documents before the matter has been called in open court.

Some documents, such as those involving the interests of children, state security or commercial confidentiality, could be kept quiet but a departure from the general rule is an exception and must be justified.

The Supreme Court of Appeal in City of Cape Town v SANRAL held that it is fundamental to the administration of justice that members of the public are allowed access to court records. The principle of open courtrooms is constitutionally entrenched and it endangers the principle if court documents are inaccessible or unpublishable. The public cannot properly assess the legitimacy or fairness of court proceedings without access to the documents providing the basis for a court’s decision.

The rule is particularly important in matters where members of the public challenge actions by the state because it ensures openness in the consideration of government conduct. This is an area, the court noted, where openness is sorely needed.

Open courts protect those on trial from the unfair application of law and, in the long term, from unfair laws.