|Judges concerned about media access to affidavits in family law cases|
|Judges have raised concerns about media access to court documents following the relaxing of the in camera (in private) rule in family law cases, according to emails released under the Freedom of Information Acts.|
The correspondence, released by the Courts Service, shows judges had “practical concerns” about whether media should have access to documents such as affidavits and social worker reports that have been discussed in court.
Since January this year under the Courts and Civil Law (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2013, reporters can attend family law and childcare cases and report on them, subject to restrictions including a requirement to protect the identity of the parties involved.
Reports from social workers, guardians and medical experts are often opened or partially opened during these proceedings.
An email from the Courts Service chief registrar, dated shortly after the new legislation was commenced, says the Family Law Court Development Committee, a part of the Courts Services Board, had discussed a draft document for judges on the operation of the Act.
The committee noted there was “no clarity on whether the new legislative provisions intend to afford” media access to documents such as affidavits or social work reports.
“So the judges of the respective jurisdictions will be discussing this among themselves,” the email said.
It said there were “practical concerns” with affidavits opened in court because it was not always clear to a registrar which ones had actually been opened.
“It is never going to be possible for staff in the Central Office or other court offices to identify which affidavits were opened to the court,” it said.
The documents also show that the commencement of the legislation came as a surprise to the judiciary.
In an email on January 13th from President of the District Court Judge Rosemary Horgan to a Courts Service official after notification that the legislation had commenced, the judge asked if the notification was “a draft”.
“I had my judicial assistant on to the department about this all this month and last and they could not give her a date,” the judge said.
In a separate email later that day to the same official, the judge noted that the law was “a big change for litigants” and would impact on management of the court lists.
She said the rules of court would need to be changed, but there would also be a need for new practice directions, issued to supplement court rules and inform parties what the court expects of them.
The judge included a draft briefing note prepared for judges on changes to the in camera rule. The note said the default principle was now “open justice”.
“Restriction is an exception which must be justified by the court,” the note said.
If making any restriction on media reporting or excluding media for the entire or part of a case “reasons should be given” by reference to the legislation.
It said it may be advisable to invite representations from parties and the media when determining restrictions and or exclusions.
The briefing note also said some family or childcare courts may not have the capacity for large volumes of media and “health and safety and capacity issues may need to be considered”.
Further guidelines for judges include notes on how to identify a bona fide member of the press, including by requiring the production of a National Union of Journalists card or a work ID from a broadcaster or news title which is a member of the Press Council of Ireland. Accreditation may also be applied for in advance.
The note said for online reporting it was important that procedures were in place to monitor and if necessary remove comments from the public that might breach the Act or restriction orders made by the court.
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