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What Does “Under Seal” Mean?
What is a “seal?”
Seals have been around for hundreds of years, but their purpose has changed a lot during that time. The term “under seal” for instance, has little in common with the main reason for using a physical seal in the past. But what actually is a seal? The use of a seal, which could be a blob of wax, a watermark, or some other kind of unique mark, is to help confirm the authenticity of a document. Seals were often used in conjunction with a signature to confer authenticity. Notary publics may still use a seal together with their signature to confirm the authenticity of a document or acknowledge witnessing a sworn statement.
The variety of ancient seals once in use is remarkable. Even teeth bite marks have been used! Royalty, important people and governments usually had their own seals. Although seals are still used for some authentication purposes, they have been largely replaced these days by other ways of confirming authenticity, including rubber or metal stamps. Electronic chips used in e-passports are a modern equivalent of seals. The use of a seal is still used for birth and marriage certificates as well as some educational and professional certificates and deeds. All U.S. states, including the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, have their own ceremonial seals.
Keeping information confidential – filing a document “under seal”
When you seal an entrance off, it makes it difficult to penetrate. In a non-legal use of such seals, seals made of wire or some other sort of metal may be used to tamper proof an electricity supply meter. The seal has to be broken to tamper with the meter, usually done illegally to stop the meter from measuring how much power has been used. Filing a document “under seal” is a way that a document’s information can be kept hidden for a specified period. Documents under seal may be placed in an envelope and stored somewhere secure such as a safe until the seal can legitimately be broken and the information revealed. Under seal, at least in Massachusetts, typically means that no-one can view the information contained in the document, even the party or parties that formulated it. In Massachusetts, a similar but slightly different practice is “impoundment”. An impounded document or documents, are kept from being accessed or viewed by anyone except those parties who
When a confidential document (or documents) is filed under seal, normally it is filed with a court which will give permission for the seal to be established, at least until the owners of the document give consent to have the seal broken. Some documents that might be filed under seal include:
- personal data, such as social security numbers and financial information in a divorce case;
- juvenile records;
- sensitive information in a criminal or civil case;
- order of protection and domestic violence case information;
- confidential information related to an alleged fraud or a breach of the false claims act;
- information or documents in an employment or business dispute.
Documents such as those listed above can normally only be filed under seal with the acceptance of the court after filing a motion to seal. The seal may also be broken if a party who wishes to view the information files a motion with the court to make the information public. Otherwise the seal may be lifted after a time period specified when the seal was filed in the first place.
Signed, sealed and delivered: contracts “under seal”
When a contract has been signed under seal it refers to a more formal type of contract which because of the seal does not require any consideration, i.e. it is a binding agreement. The term “delivered” just means that the contract has either been delivered in person or its existence acknowledged by any other party to the contract. The seal may be a traditional type of seal as described above, but this has gone out of practice more or less everywhere although the word ‘seal” may still be used or a reference in the form of “signed, sealed and delivered”.
Contracts under seal may also be referred to as deeds, covenants, sealed contracts or specialty contracts. Sealing a contract is no longer necessary to convey a binding agreement in many U.S. states, although about a third of the states still retain the concept. New Jersey and Wisconsin are examples. Massachusetts no longer regards a seal as a statutory requirement of legally binding contracts.