Kevin O'Higgins Solicitors

Easing of media ban in family and childcare courts comes into effect

Monday, 13 January, 2014
The Irish Times
Ruadhan Mac Cormaic

Minister for Justice Alan Shatter says the reforms will provide valuable information to the public, judiciary and legal professionals. “However, the public’s right to know has to be balanced with a family’s right to privacy.”

Journalists will be allowed to report on family law and childcare court proceedings from today after Minister for Justice Alan Shatter signed an order to ease a long-standing ban on covering such cases.

The law that relaxes the “in camera” (in private) rule was enacted last July and came into force with immediate effect when Mr Shatter signed a commencement order in recent days.

It removes the blanket ban on reporters attending family law, childcare and adoption cases in courts around the State, enabling the media to cover proceedings dealing with divorce, separation, domestic violence, maintenance and custody, as well as cases where the State takes children into care.

The law imposes a strict ban on the publication of any material that would be likely to lead to the identification of individuals involved, with any breach of the ban an offence carrying a fine of up to €50,000 or three years in prison.

Mr Shatter said it was in the public interest that there be greater knowledge of the administration of the law in these areas and the reforms would provide valuable information to the public, judiciary and legal professionals. “However, the public’s right to know has to be balanced with a family’s right to privacy,” he added.

Under the new law, the courts will retain the power to exclude journalists or to restrict reporting in certain circumstances.

Mr Shatter said it was an attempt to strike an “appropriate balance” between providing greater transparency on how family law was being applied and ensuring the best interests of children were protected. He said it was also important that the law did not deter people from going to court.

Journalists and campaigners have welcomed the easing of the in camera rule, but concerns have been raised about how the reforms will work in practice.

Children’s Ombudsman Emily Logan told the Government last year she had “serious concerns” about the potential impact of the changes, warning that they may lead to the identification of individuals or cause children to retract child abuse disclosures.

The new law qualifies the entitlement to report with a number of possible restrictions.

The court can, either at its own initiative or at the request of any of the parties, exclude the media or impose restrictions on what may be reported where it deems this is necessary in order to preserve the anonymity of a party or child, by reason of “the nature or circumstances of the case” or because it deems it “necessary in the interests of justice”.

The law lists a number of factors a court may consider in deciding whether to restrict reporting or exclude journalists. These include the best interests of a child, the extent to which the presence of the media might inhibit or cause undue distress to a party or a child and the need to protect a party against coercion, intimidation or harassment.

A judge may also consider whether information given in evidence is, or is likely to be, commercially or personally sensitive – with the latter category drawn widely to include information relating to the medical history of the person, their tax affairs and sexual orientation.