Know the Law: Your Rights to Public Records

Alexandra S. Cote
Associate, Litigation Department
Published: Union Leader
March 15, 2020
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Q: Do I have a right to obtain public records and, if so, how do I obtain them?

A: Yes, you have a general right to access public records. You can do so by making a request under New Hampshire’s “Right-to-Know Law,” RSA 91-A, which was enacted to “ensure both the greatest possible public access to the actions, discussions and records of all public bodies, and their accountability to the people.”

All public bodies are subject to the Right-to-Know Law. “Public bodies” means all boards, commissions, agencies, authorities, committees and any subordinate bodies or committees of a political subdivisions of the state. This also includes counties, towns, municipal corporations, village districts, school districts, school administrative units and charter schools.

In short, New Hampshire’s Right-to-Know Law grants citizens the right to inspect and copy the records of these public bodies, unless otherwise prohibited by statute. The law details the types of records that are accessible —referred to as “governmental records” — and exempts other records from disclosure.

It defines “governmental records” as “any information created, accepted, or obtained by, or on behalf of, any public body, or a quorum or majority thereof, or any public agency in furtherance of its official function.” This broad definition encompasses, for example, state agency budget requests, contracts and certain law enforcement investigative records.

There are a number of exemptions to access, which includes, among other types of information, the records of grand and petit juries, records pertaining to internal personnel practices, and confidential commercial or financial information.

These and other exemptions are fully detailed by statute, and the New Hampshire Attorney General’s Office issued a Memorandum on the Right-to-Know Law, which provides helpful guidance on, among other topics, determining whether information is considered a “governmental record” and whether it is nevertheless exempt from disclosure. This memorandum is available online at www.doj.nh.gov/civil/publications.htm.

You can obtain non-exempt governmental records from public bodies by oral or written request. If the records are immediately physically available, the public body must produce them for inspection and/or copying or explain why production is not appropriate. If the records are not immediately physically available — which may be the case because they are in use, stored at a different location, or must first be reviewed and redacted — the public body is required to respond to your request within five business days. This response must either deny the request in writing describing the reasons for denial, inform you when the documents will be made available, or advise you when a search for responsive records is expected to be completed.

You will find that public officials are typically conscious of their responsibilities under the Right-to-Know Law and endeavor to abide by its requirements. The law does allow certain remedies in the event further action is necessary, including the right to petition the Superior Court to compel disclosure. Before making any request or seeking further relief, you should review relevant statutory provisions or consult an attorney for further guidance.