The Irish Constitution provides that justice must be heard in public. The determination of family law matters by the courts is one exception to this rule and, up until very recently, they have been heard in private or in camera. This prevented both the media and members of the public from attending such proceedings.
Concerns have been raised over a number of years about the lack of available information in respect of family law proceedings. Commentators have also argued that the protection of the rights of the child and family cannot be properly assessed where these proceedings are heard behind closed doors.
The government has now addressed these concerns by the introduction of the Courts and Civil Law (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2013. One of the key provisions of this Act modifies the in camera rule in respect of family law matters to allow bona fide members of the media to be present in court where family and child care proceedings are being heard. However, the Act contains reporting restrictions that specifically prohibit publication of any material which would be likely to lead members of the public to identify the parties to the relevant proceedings, or any child to whom the proceedings relate. Breach of this provision is a criminal offence and on conviction on indictment, it can result in a fine up to €50,000 or a term of imprisonment of up to 12 months, or to both.
The courts also have the power under this new legislation to make an order excluding or otherwise restricting the media’s attendance at family law hearings, or to prohibit or restrict publication or broadcast of any evidence given at such hearings (i) in order to preserve the anonymity of the parties or any child to the proceedings; (ii) by reason of the nature or circumstance of the case; or (iii) as it may be otherwise necessary in the interests of justice.
When making such an order, the courts shall have regard to the desirability of promoting public confidence in the administration of justice and to any other matter that appears to be relevant. In addition, the court shall consider a number of other factors set out in new Act including (i) the best interests of any child to whom the proceedings relate; (ii) the views of the parties to the proceedings; (iii) the extent to which the attendance by the media might inhibit or cause undue stress to a party to the proceedings or a child to whom the proceedings relate; and (iv) whether the information given or likely to be given in evidence is commercially sensitive information, prejudicial to a criminal investigation or criminal proceedings.
The provisions of this new legislation became operative on 13 January 2014.