Journalists will be free to report on family cases

Fri, Nov 2, 2012, 00:00

JOURNALISTS WILL be allowed to report on family law and child care cases when the in-camera rule is amended by new legislation, Minister for Justice Alan Shatter has confirmed.

The implementation of the in-camera rule has meant court proceedings involving children are not open to the media and the information revealed in them is not disclosed to the public.

“There is a public perception that undue secrecy is attached to the administration of this area of the law and that there is a lack of uniformity and consistency in the manner in which it is administered,” Mr Shatter said.

He said legislation would be prepared to make proceedings “more transparent” as part of a series of reform measures being undertaken to fulfil the programme for government commitment to modernise aspects of family law.

“The legislation will amend the in-camera rule to allow press access to the courts in family law and childcare proceedings,” Mr Shatter said. He stressed this would be subject to a strict prohibition on the publication of any material that could lead to the identification of the parties or children involved.

Care would be taken to ensure that the best interests of children were protected, he added. He said the purpose of the long-standing in-camera rule was to protect the privacy of parties concerned and to ensure their anonymity and that of their children was fully preserved.

“However, the application of the in-camera rule has meant that family cases including childcare cases are not generally reported and the public, and even practitioners may not be aware of how the law, particularly in relation to children, is being operated and applied in the different courts, before which such issues are heard.”

Last July, Mr Shatter announced the holding of a referendum on Article 34 of the Constitution, which relates to the courts, had been approved in principle by the Government. It would permit the establishment of additional superior courts including a new separate structure of family courts to hear and determine family law disputes and childcare cases.

Minister for Children Frances Fitzgerald said constitutional change was only one part of a series of changes that needed to take place for the benefit of children. The upcoming children’s rights referendum proposes to insert a new article 42a into the Constitution. In relation to the in-camera rule, Ms Fitzgerald said: “The Government intends to change it.” She made the announcement during a debate on the children’s rights referendum hosted by Vincent Browne on TV3 on Wednesday night.

Columnist John Waters, who also took part in the debate, predicted the Government would complete its term of office without amending the in-camera rule. He complained about “secret courts” operating behind a “veil of secrecy with no accountability, no transparency . . . so the public cannot know”.

Former Supreme Court judge Catherine McGuinness said she thought courts would “perhaps behave more carefully” when members of the press were present than if they were not present. “I think that’s important however insulting that may be to both my . . . former colleagues and present judges.”

Speaking at a children’s rights referendum information seminar organised by the Yes for Children movement recently, she said it would be better for children if courts were more open but stressed that change would have to take place in a careful way so the children involved were not damaged. The Report of the Independent Child Death Review Group, published in June included an analysis of the operation of the in-camera rule, and recommended its operation be changed.