Over the last several years it has been increasingly common for the captions of child custody cases when taken on appeal to be referred to by the initials of the parties, as opposed to using their full names. Contrary to what many assume, the trend to initialize is not due to some established procedural rule or directive from the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, but, rather, it is due to a provision in the Pennsylvania Superior Court’s internal operating procedures.

Although initialization has been the practice of the Superior Court for around 10 years at this point, many attorneys, especially those who are more senior in the practice, have not been supportive of initialization, as it makes it difficult to remember the names of the cases, and makes any discussion of case law rather difficult. Indeed, the term “alphabet soup” has been applied to this practice. Furthermore, some trial courts have adopted the practice of initializing independently, which has made referring to a custody order with a third party rather difficult. So, for example, when a party or child’s name is initialized in a custody court order, a third party (e.g., a school or a doctor) may not comply with its terms as it has no objective way of knowing whether the initials in the order actually refer to the party or child seeking its application at that doctor’s office or school.

In order to create a uniform practice and consistent direction about when and why to initialize, two revisions to the Pennsylvania Rules of Civil Procedure, R.C.P. 1915.10 and 1930.1 are currently bring proposed.

The revision to Rule 1915.10 definitively authorizes trial courts to initialize custody cases if the facts of the case are considered sufficiently “sensitive” in order to protect the privacy and reputation of the parties and children involved. As an additional layer of privacy protection, any initialized court order or opinion must also take steps to obscure the names of schools or activities and other specific references to things that could be used identify the child(ren) and parties in the case; instead, general terms should be used when possible. For example, instead of identifying a child’s soccer league, an order should simply state something like “soccer league,” and instead of using a child’s school’s name, it should merely refer to a “school.”

In addition to the above, the suggested revisions to Rule 1930.1 require the full names of the parties involved to be used in captions unless the case involves “sensitive facts” and with consideration of the child’s best interests or violates the above revisions to R.C.P. 1915.10 protecting the privacy of sensitive cases. It is in the estimation of the drafters of the revisions that the typical custody case does not involve such sensitive information, or shocking and outrageous facts, that would require taking the additional measure of initialization to protect the privacy of the children or parties involved.

So, family attorneys, particularly those who focus on custody law, need to monitor these developments to ensure they remain compliant with the rules and sufficiently respect the privacy of the parties and children involved in their custody cases.

Published on October 1, 2019 in The Legal Intelligencer and can be found here.