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What Does "In Chambers" Mean?

In a pretrial conference, a judge may encourage parties to settle the case before setting a trial date.
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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Nancy Fann-Im
  • Last Modified Date: 20 July 2014
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In the legal community, the term “in chambers” refers to a private legal meeting or decision where members of the public are not present. Many legal systems preserve the right to public legal proceedings, and the decision to review something in chambers must have support in the form of an argument explaining why the public should not be able to access the information. This can occur because people have worries about trade secrets or safety, as in the case of information that may potentially compromise national security.

A judge may hold a conference in chambers with attorneys and their clients before a trial to see if it is possible to reach a resolution without taking the case to court. This saves the legal system money as well as frees up the court for other matters. The results of the session will be available, but the information people discuss remains private. Judges can also meet with attorneys or review evidence in chambers if there is a chance that having it in open court might pose a business or safety risk; for example, an attorney in a products liability case could argue that a piece of evidence is a trade secret.

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Some busy courts also maintain a judge who acts as a judge-in-chambers to quickly hear basic legal matters and deliver expedited decisions. This commonly comes up in the context of a warrant, where law enforcement officers need to move quickly and do not want to wait for a judge and courtroom to become available. They can meet directly with the judge-in-chambers to review the information and get a court order for a search or arrest.

Cases may be heard in chambers by clearing members of the public from the court when a witness could be intimidated or frightened. The judge needs to balance the need for publicly accessible trials with concerns about a potential trial compromise. If there are concerns about a witness in open court, the attorneys can discuss the matter with the judge and reach an agreement on the matter. If, for instance, a witness is testifying in a gang case, there may be worries about gang members showing up in open court to threaten the witness.

Addressing matters in chambers provides a mechanism for privately discussing legal issues without the pressure of a public court. In some legal systems, people may regard agreements made in this matter with suspicion because they seem like backroom dealings.

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