Judges and journalists make progress on right to report family and childcare cases

Family courts seemed a little stunned by glare of attention during their first few days of being open to the media

The lobby of the Dublin Circuit Family Courts, in Phoenix House Smithfield, was filled with solicitors, barristers and their clients on Monday. Unlike other courts, parties can’t sit in a family courtroom and listen to other cases while they await their own. Photograph: Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times

The lobby of the Dublin Circuit Family Courts, in Phoenix House Smithfield, was filled with solicitors, barristers and their clients on Monday. Unlike other courts, parties can’t sit in a family courtroom and listen to other cases while they await their own. Photograph: Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times

Sat, Jan 18, 2014, 01:00

The relaxing of the in camera rule by Minister for Justice Alan Shatter from last Monday means the media can cover court proceedings in family law and childcare cases with certain restrictions.

The aim is to shed some light on proceedings that had previously, apart from the work of the family law reporting project, been largely an unknown quantity.

But it seemed, at least for the first few days, that the courts were a little stunned by the sudden glare of attention.

The new law was passed by the Oireachtas last July and the courts were aware it would be coming into force, but it had been expected that protocols for media coverage would be agreed first.

However, last Sunday night Mr Shatter announced the law would begin “with immediate effect”.

Under it, the media are allowed to attend hearings and report on them, provided they do not identify any of the parties. However, a judge has the right to decide to exclude the press or to impose restrictions on reporting some of the evidence.

Judges are entitled to make such decisions either of their own volition or following an application by a party in the case.


Full lobby
On Monday, the lobby of the Dublin Circuit Family Courts in Phoenix House, Smithfield, was filled with solicitors, barristers and their clients. Unlike other courts, parties can’t sit in a family courtroom and listen to other cases while they await their own. Instead, the registrar calls one case at a time and only the parties involved can be present for proceedings.

Court 32 was empty, save for the registrar. I introduced myself, produced my press card and was asked to wait outside for a moment. Shortly afterwards a member of the Courts Service staff politely diverted me to the court of Judge Carmel Stewart and introduced me to the registrar there.

A divorce case was about to begin and when counsel became aware of the media presence, there was a hasty search for copies of the law and then an application to the judge to have media excluded.

The grounds for the application included that the case had already begun and coverage might prejudice one party, and also that commercially sensitive information would be disclosed. Judge Stewart said she had just become aware the legislation had commenced. She asked me some questions before ruling that, given the commercial sensitivity, the media should be excluded.

At a third attempt, in the court of Judge Sarah Berkeley, I was allowed to stay for a first sample of family law in operation.

In the afternoon, a sign on the door of the Dublin District Family Courts in Dolphin House, East Essex Street, warned reporters and photographers not to enter the building. The ground floor waiting area was packed and a member of staff accompanied me upstairs to Court 47, where I supplied my press card and was welcomed to the court of Judge Sinéad Ní Chúlacháin.

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