Research project to see childcare cases in courts reported on for first time
Childcare cases in the courts will be reported on for the first time as part of a new research project launched by Minister for Children Frances Fitzgerald yesterday.
Ms Fitzgerald said an independent study, to be undertaken by the former legal affairs editor of The Irish Times, Carol Coulter, represented a “new beginning” in relation to such cases.
“In the public arena to date there hasn’t been a great amount of information available because obviously these cases are held in private, and have been held in private, for good reasons, but of course there is a difference between privacy and secrecy,” Ms Fitzgerald said.
The Minister will give Dr Coulter permission, under the Child Care (Amendment) Act 2007, to attend and report on childcare proceedings. Dr Coulter will also collect data that could inform future policy.
Minister for Justice Alan Shatter has promised proposed legislation to amend the in-camera rule within weeks.
Dr Coulter will attend a representative selection of cases in the district courts. Yesterday she said she was committed to the administration of justice in public. “If we are to have confidence in our justice system it must be administered in public so that people know what is happening in our courts,” she said.
Dr Coulter said it was possible to report on such cases while preserving the anonymity of the parties involved and of vulnerable people. “We must, as the Minister said, distinguish between privacy and secrecy. We can protect people’s privacy without maintaining secrecy. This project will be doing that.”
Short reports of actual cases will be “anonymised” and published on a dedicated website, while in-depth data will be collected to establish patterns and highlight areas of law that may need further attention.
The project will be supported by funding from Atlantic Philanthropies, founded by US billionaire Chuck Feeney, and the One Foundation, co-founded by Ryanair heir Declan Ryan and Deirdre Mortell, with “infrastructural support” from Ms Fitzgerald’s department.
Among those sitting on the project’s expert advisory board will be former Supreme Court judge Catherine McGuinness and Geoffrey Shannon, the Government rapporteur on child protection, who attended the launch in Dublin yesterday.
Judge McGuinness said it was right that childcare proceedings should be reported on, “although of course one has to maintain the privacy of the families and particularly the children that are involved”.
Mr Shannon welcomed the prospect of “home-based” research which could inform future legislation. “Where there is secrecy there is suspicion,” he added.
Childcare cases are heard mainly in the district courts and involve applications by the HSE for orders to protect children, including supervision orders, emergency and interim care orders and full care orders.
The cases are heard in-camera in order to protect the privacy of the families and written judgments rarely emerge from the District Court.
Dr Coulter ran a 12-month Courts Service pilot project on family law reporting in 2006/2007.
Her report at the end of that project contained recommendations for further reporting on family law and reform of the family law system.