I get a great many calls from people who are confused about the real meaning and effect of a certificate of relief from civil disabilities and sealing or expungement of criminal records. Let me just clear this up right away.
A certificate of relief from civil disabilities is NOT a sealing or expungement of anything. If you get a certificate of relief from civil disabilities, you still have a criminal record. The benefit of a certificate of relief from civil disabilities is simply that some of the automatic disqualifications and difficulties associated with that conviction are eliminated.
For example, many licenses issued by the government for various business related activities, such as a liquor license that is required to operate a bar, may automatically exclude people who have criminal convictions. You shouldn't even bother to apply because of the automatic disqualification. If you get a certificate of relief from civil disabilities, however, that automatic disqualification is wiped away, and you would then be eligible. This does not mean, however, that the people deciding your application are not allowed to see the conviction or even decide against you because of it. It just means that if they want to give you the license in spite of the conviction, the law will now allow it.
A sealed conviction, however, will not be generally available to the public or even to many Government agencies, although law enforcement and some regulated agencies will still have access.
In those particular circumstances where a certificate of relief from civil disabilities helps, it is of course great. For most people under most circumstances the certificate is more like chicken soup as a remedy for a common cold. It can't hurt, but in truth probably doesn't do too much for you either.
You apply for the certificate through the Department of Probation. There is a form. When you file the form, they will fingerprint you and interview you. You will get a court date to appear for the judge's decision. On that date, the judge will be given your application and a report from probation that will outline their recommendation. The judge will either decide on the spot or perhaps require more information from you or Probation and adjourn the case to a new date for decision.
Given that less is at stake with certificates of relief than with actual sealing, it tends to be a less formal process.