Thursday, 8 October 1987
Seanad Eireann Debate
I would like to apologise for the lateness of my amendment. I canvassed the views of a number of groups about the aspect of the hearings of the proceedings under this Act. There has been general unhappiness and concern over the years since 1976 that because cases are heard in camera we do not have any idea of the details, the numbers or the circumstances. This has led to a situation where two things have happened. The public have no perception of the extent of the problem in family law. I think this was very much in evidence during the constitutional referendum on divorce legislation. When people cannot speak about the very real problems that come up in family law because most of the cases are held in camera, it is as if they did not happen.
When I knew that this Bill was coming  before the Houses of the Oireachtas I asked groups like the ICA, the AIM group and a number of others as to what they felt about the cases being held in camera and if they would favour an open court hearing, with the proceedings being reported. I did not feel happy that this would be the right move as I remembered the times I sat in court and listened to a couple arguing over the price of a towel or a pair of shoes for a child and this was in between all the traffic offences and stolen bicycles cases with the public there listening. That is not appropriate or right either.
The point I am making is that the details of these cases are buried. When the groups came back to me, the ICA — I suppose because of the nature of where their members live — did not want to have the cases publicised at all. They were quite happy with the situation as it is phrased in section 14 of the Principal Act. The in camera provision should continue. The AIM group, who would be more familiar with the cases and the outcome of cases, felt that some change might be brought about. I am putting it to the Minister but I do not know what his response will be or what he can do about the matter. AIM said that, with regard to section 14 of the Principal Act, they are in favour of the publication of certain facts and figures. They said that in the present situation it is easy to minimise the extent of family violence. They give the instance of people saying there is no incest or little incest in Ireland. We know now that is not the case. It is equally easy to exaggerate aspects of the problem. Any woman can get her husband barred if she so wishes. AIM group feel that the following details could be published without threatening the essential anonymity of the plaintiff and the defendant: the number of cases heard monthly; the number of barring orders granted; the reason in brief for making the orders; the number of protection orders made by the court; and the reason in brief for making the orders. They said that in this way a picture of the real situation in respect of family violence and the judicial attitude to it could be formed. AIM feel that  the general public and the press should continue to be excluded from these hearings and that a court official could record the information which would be for publication. That really is the position. We should have a report on the cases, the reasons they were taken and the decisions made by the court to enable us to have a body of information which, I think, is important for many reasons. It is important in the long term for policy and planning. It should be available also for researchers and for people who are interested in the process of law within the family.
Minister for Justice (Mr. Collins): Members will appreciate that I have difficulty in dealing with this amendment at such short notice. It raises the whole issue of whether family law cases should be reported and, if so, how. The general rule is that cases are heard otherwise than in public. The only source of reports of such cases is in legal reports of cases where the names of the parties are not disclosed. Any change in that position should be considered carefully in the overall context and not just in relation to barring orders and protection orders. I fully appreciate the Senator's disquiet at the present situation but I would prefer to consider the matter as a whole and come up with a solution which will have general application in family law cases.
I accept that the points made by Senator Fennell are very valuable points and I hope that she can understand my difficulty with regard to acceptance of her amendment. The issue she has raised is a general issue, not just a specific matter in regard to this Bill. It is a general issue concerning the reporting of family law cases generally right across the board. Changes in this Bill cannot be made without considering the effects of such changes on other areas of family law. I appreciate Senator Fennell's concern. Even though I cannot accept her amendment I will certainly give an undertaking to have the matter looked at, having regard to the case she has made, to see if we can come up with some solution to the problem in an effort to get a general  application on the matter. It would be a wrong move to agree to a specific amendment at this stage without giving the matter consideration. I share the Senator's concern.
Mrs. Fennell: I am mentioning it in the context of this Bill because it is the first one of its kind that has come before me as a legislator. I think the Minister is right. It is something that has to be examined across the board in all family law cases. As compared with other countries we are ill-served by the lack of case law and the reporting on family law cases. I would like to ask the Minister if it is something that can be incorporated in legislation or is it something that has to be directed to the court?
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