Children’s ombudsman has ‘serious concerns’ on lifting ban on media attending family law proceedings

Courts Bill due to go to second stage in the Oireachtas this week

Ombudsman for Children Emily Logan has told the Government she has "serious concerns" about its plans to lift the ban on journalists attending family and childcare law proceedings.

The Courts Bill 2013, which is due to go to second stage in the Oireachtas tomorrow, would ease the "in-camera" rule by allowing the media to attend and report on proceedings dealing with divorce, separation, domestic violence, maintenance and custody matters. It would also permit coverage of proceedings where the State takes children into care.

The Bill contains a strict ban on the publication of any material which would be likely to lead to the identification of individuals involved.

However, in a report sent to the Department of Justice, Ms Logan said her office had a number of “serious concerns” about the potential impact of the reform.


She warns that the Bill may lead to the identification of individuals and may cause children to retract child abuse disclosures and deter parties from going to court. It urges the Government to "reconsider" the provisions on media presence in order to take her concerns into account.

Public debate
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. The ombudsman says she sympathises with the objective of greater transparency but argues that the best interests of children should be a paramount consideration.

Setting out how safeguards included in the Bill may not be sufficient to ensure the anonymity of parties, the report points out that if a local newspaper is reporting on childcare cases, readers may reasonably conclude that the cases reported on are from the locality, even if this is not stated.

"Detail which may not identify a child in a national newspaper may more easily identify a child when in a local newspaper," it states. In some cases, the report argues, the particular details may lead to identification. "For example, details of any unusual features of the child or the parents may lead to their identification in their local communities."

Further distress
It warns that if a child were to become aware from contemporaneous media reportage of what is occurring in the case, this may cause the child further distress, particularly if the child learns of denial by the parents of the abuse. "Further, it may increase pressure on the child to retract his or her account of the abuse."

The Bill contains a penalty of up to three years in prison and a €50,000 fine for journalists who break rules on anonymity. Notwithstanding such safeguards, Ms Logan expresses the concern that penalties may be ineffective to prevent identification. “If multiple journalists are present in court, each journalist may not, him or herself, identify the child but taken together their reports may do so. In such a case, it is not clear which journalist, if any, could be fairly prosecuted,” the report states.

Under the Bill, the judge in each case will be empowered to exclude representatives of the press, or restrict the coverage of certain evidence, and the draft law contains a list of factors a judge may consider in determining whether to limit coverage in these ways. “It is not specifically clarified that the best interests of the child must be the paramount consideration in determining such matters,” she says.

Ruadhán Mac Cormaic

Ruadhán Mac Cormaic

Ruadhán Mac Cormaic is the Editor of The Irish Times