McDowell fears amended law on identifying deceased children ‘unintelligible’

Minister insists Bill is clear and flexible and will allow parents to remember children in public

Minister for Justice Helen McEntee has welcomed the passage of a Bill in the Seanad to allow the identification of children who are the victims of murder or manslaughter. File photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins.

Minister for Justice Helen McEntee has welcomed the passage of a Bill in the Seanad to allow the identification of children who are the victims of murder or manslaughter. File photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins.

 

Minister for Justice Helen McEntee has welcomed the passage of a Bill in the Seanad to allow the identification of children who are the victims of murder or manslaughter and to allow their parents to publicly remember their child.

The legislation, which now goes to the Dáil, was introduced after a Court of Appeal ruling that a dead child cannot be identified when someone is charged with their killing.

But Independent Senator Michael McDowell, who drafted the initial Children (Amendment) Bill, expressed concern that the amended legislation would be “unintelligible to ordinary persons” and that a journalist had told him they could not understand what could or could not be reported.

Under the Children’s Act it is an offence to publish anything that could lead to the identification of a child who has been the victim of a crime. In October, the Court of Appeal ruled that those restrictions also apply if the child is deceased or has already turned 18.

Ms McEntee said the Bill “is a really important piece of legislation and I hope it can be enacted without delay, because we cannot continue to have parents not able to speak their child’s name aloud and remember them in the way that they want to”.

“This is about giving power back to those parents to remember their children and secure their children’s legacies.”

Easily understood

Mr McDowell said it was desirable to have a text that “will be easily understood by the judiciary, practitioners, relatives of injured and deceased parties, witnesses and members of the media”.

This was necessary for a clear statement of “precisely what the law is in respect of the reportage of proceedings involving children generally, and in particular of criminal proceedings where a child has been the subject of homicide”.

The NUI Senator and senior counsel highlighted circumstances in which a child might be a witness to the murder of another child, for instance a sibling.

The identity of the child witness might be known because of their relationship and he said “we should not enact a law that prohibits the identification of the deceased child on the basis that a child witness might, in a derivative way, be identified”.

Defamation

Fine Gael Senator Mary Seery Kearney said, however, that journalists were “professionals who have come through college, in the main, and been taught about defamation and legal limitations in the practice of their art and skill.

“This will form part of that process and it will be a significant event in halting the ability of journalists to name victims of crime, including the ultimate horrific crime of homicide.”

Ms McEntee said they were restoring the law to what people thought it was before and the Government amendment allowed flexibility. In the circumstances Mr McDowell outlined, she said “it does not mean that people automatically cannot name the sibling because of the deceased child”.

“If parents want to be able to name their child where it may not have an implication on the living child, I do not want to prevent them from doing that. I do not want that to happen. The legislation is clear that will not be the case.”