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Column: Behind the veil – a new era has begun for family courts

The easing of the in camera rule in Irish family courts will see many social issues come to light – many of which may have been hidden behind from the public for generations, writes Katherine Irwin.

Image: Sebastian Duda via Shutterstock

SUNDAY 12 JANUARY marked the first of many legal changes in 2014, as the in camera rule was eased in family law courts. The lifting of the veil on family law proceedings means that for the first time members of the media have access to report on family law cases before the courts.

Before now the in camera rule was exacting and strictly enforced, allowing none but a limited group of people, including the parties involved, into a court where family law matters were being heard. The effect of the changes has already been felt by the reporting of proceedings in both the Circuit Court and the District Court in the first few days of the change.

Debate has raged for years over the restriction of access by the public to the family law courts. Accusations of collusion between judges and solicitors in the making of orders and a level of distrust have grown up between the public and the legal system over the operation of the courts.

An attempt at alleviating this gulf between the public’s perception of the legal system and the reality was the implementation of Section 4(3) of the Civil Liability and Courts Act 2004. This allowed limited access to family law cases by allowing a number of categories of people to attend a court where family law proceedings are being heard and to report on the proceedings. Journalist Carol Coulter was one such person who was engaged by the Courts Service to prepare such reports. But in recent years it had become inevitable that the move towards greater openness would result in further changes to the law.

Public interest v private interest

Weighing up the demands of the public for knowledge and the right to privacy for those engaged in the legal system on family law matters is a fine balancing act.

The Law Reform Commission, in its report on privacy in 1998, carried out a comprehensive review of what was meant by ‘privacy’ and what was meant by ‘the public interest’. While that report dealt with the extent of surveillance and limitation of harassment by such equipment it set out that privacy as a concept includes “a wide range of personal interest or claims which places limits on the right of society and of its members to acquire knowledge of and to take action regarding another person.” Later on it states that, as the European Commission pointed out, “privacy therefore entails the right to establish and to develop relationships with other human beings especially in the emotional field for the development and fulfilment of one’s own personality”.

Crucially the tensions between the private interest and the public interest have resulted in this reform which it is hoped will balance the family’s right to privacy with the public’s right to know. The Courts and Legal Services Act, 2013 (Part II) allows a bona fide representative of the press to be present in court during these proceedings. The anonymity of parties will be preserved in all cases.

Relying on the quality of media reports

In addition, the amendment provides that it would be an offence to broadcast or make public any information that would be likely to lead members of the public to identify the parties to the family proceedings or any children to whom the proceedings relate. The fine on conviction could amount to €50,000 or imprisonment for a term not exceeding three years, or both. The Minister for Justice has stated that the changes were a part of the government’s commitment in the programme for government to reform and modernise aspects of family law.

There is a surely a degree of fear present when it comes to the lifting of the in camera rule. Families involved in such court proceedings and members of the legal profession will need to adjust to this new era. Essentially we will be relying on the quality of reporting by the members of the media to maintain the standard and the dignity of those utilising the justice system for such sensitive matters.

On a positive note, in the first report of its kind on Tuesday January 14, Fiona Gartland in the Irish Times provided a largely balanced description of cases before the Circuit Court and District Court. One of the issues reported on related to domestic violence. We can be sure that we will see many social issues come to light in the coming months and years, many of which may have been hidden behind the veil of the in camera rule for generations.

Raising the awareness about these issues through its reporting in the press can only have positive effects. The insight and ability of our experienced judiciary can also be highlighted for what it is with the benefit of such measured reporting. Let’s hope the Minister has gotten the balance right.

Katherine Irwin is a partner and head of Private Client and Family Law at Beauchamps Solicitors.

Read: Family law and child care court cases can now be reported, but under strict conditions

Column: Our new in camera Family Court legislation is a sham

Column: Why and how are children taken into State care?

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