Friday, May 29, 2009
A BAN on media coverage of family law cases could be circumvented if the reporting was carried out by qualified solicitors or barristers, according to a high-ranking committee of the Court Service Board.
At present, the media are banned from reporting any family law proceedings under the in camera rule.
In a report presented to the board of the Courts Service this week, the Family Law Reporting Project Committee found there was no obstacle preventing a barrister or solicitor employed by a media organisation from reporting on family law cases.
The report also recommended that eight additional judges be appointed to the Circuit Court and District Court immediately to help deal with delays.
The committee was established to consider the recommendations of a report from Dr Carol Coulter on the Family Law Reporting Pilot Project.
Its members included the President of the Law Reform Commission and former judge of the Supreme Court, Mrs Justice Catherine McGuinness, Mr Justice Nicholas Kearns of the Supreme Court, who chaired the committee, Mr Justice Abbott of the High Court, Judge Michael White of the Circuit Court and Judge Ger Furlong of the District Court.
Ms Coulter had recommended that clarification be sought as to who may attend and report on family law proceedings under the Civil Liability and Courts Act 2004. The Act specifies that solicitors and barristers could attend and that others could be specified in regulations. When the regulations were introduced they did not include journalists.
In his foreword to the report, Mr Justice Kearns said the committee “was left in no doubt” that past restrictions on the reporting of family law had led to significant levels of suspicion and resentment, by men in particular.
“The provision of information about family law cases on an ongoing basis is essential,” he said.
The report said the committee “sees no obstacle to a barrister or solicitor, whether employed by a media organisation or operating independently, reporting proceedings for publication in a newspaper or other media”. It did not recommend a change in the law to allow unqualified reporters to attend.
The report also found people could wait for a divorce case for three months or two years on average, depending on which circuit court the case was to be heard in. It recommended three additional judges with support staff be appointed to the Circuit Court immediately, with three more to be appointed as soon as possible. And five additional judges should be appointed to the District Courts, it said.
The Kearns report also recommended a central register be established for joint guardianship agreements. The statutory declarations, made by a child’s unmarried parents state who its guardians are. They are witnessed by peace commissioners, but there is no facility to record them. A central register would provide proof of the existence of the declaration should the original be lost or destroyed, the report said.
The report also recommended compulsory information sessions for people involved in marriage break-up to make them aware of alternative dispute resolution models.
It recommended the introduction of clear procedures for judges who decide to take direct evidence from children in divorce cases.