Reporting on family law
The latest Courts Bill, which will permit media coverage of family law proceedings without identifying those involved, is long overdue and very welcome. The Bill will allow the media to attend and report on proceedings dealing with divorce, separation, domestic violence, maintenance and custody and access matters. It will allow similar coverage of proceedings where the State intervenes in families, taking children into care either on a short-term or long-term basis.
The in camera rule in family law proceedings has long been criticised because it prevented the public from knowing what went on in family courts and so inhibited informed public debate. In the absence of any sustained and objective coverage of this area of law, rumour and anecdote prevailed and the in camera rule prevented the independent verification of the claims of those disappointed and frustrated with the system.
The principle of the administration of justice in public is fundamental to democracy, as it allows the public to see how laws enacted by their representatives are worked out in practice, and creates the basis for pressure to amend such laws where they are found wanting. This is best illustrated by the coverage of rape and child sex abuse cases in recent decades, which informed the public and helped create a climate for reform. Such coverage also showed that it is possible to cover sensitive and highly personal issues without identifying victims.
The new Bill contains extensive safeguards to protect the anonymity of the parties to the proceedings and any children involved. The judge in each case will be empowered to exclude representatives of the press, or restrict the coverage of certain evidence, and is given a wide discretion in doing so. The court will be required to balance the promotion of public confidence in the administration of justice against the best interests of the child, whether sensitive personal information is given in evidence and whether the presence of the media is likely to cause distress to the vulnerable.
The restrictions apply to information which alone would not identify a person, but would do so if combined with other information published. Witnesses, including social workers and expert witnesses, are equally protected. It will be an offence to infringe these stipulations and the penalties for doing so are severe, extending to fines of €30,000 and three years’ imprisonment. The extent of the restrictions may disappoint some who would like to draw attention to individual perceived wrongdoing. All of this is likely to mean that the coverage of family law proceedings will not, in fact, turn out to be extensive, as happens in other jurisdictions which permit such media coverage. Nonetheless, the Bill is a welcome step forward in bringing transparency to an area of law that has been hidden for far too long.