Civil Liability and Courts Bill 2004: Committee Stage (Resumed).

Debate resumed on amendment No. 39:
In page 22, between lines 16 and 17, to insert the following subsection:
"(2) Access to proceedings to which the relevant enactments relate shall be permitted tobona fide academic researchers, subject to such terms and conditions relating to access as may be prescribed in regulations made by the Minister: provided that nothing published by such researchers shall contain information which would enable the parties to the proceedings or any child to which the proceedings relate to be identified.”.
—(Senator Henry).

I agree with Senator O'Meara to some extent, but I diverge strongly from her in other respects. Those who encounter family difficulties which have to be resolved through the courts are entitled to absolute privacy. Reporters or members of the public are not entitled to be present, in any circumstances, at such a hearing. The Minister has rightly identified areas that need to be addressed because of inconsistencies. There may be a need to provide for those who are doing research, for example. I advocate that the Minister should take small steps, perhaps by prescribing the categories of persons who may attend and the purposes for which they may do so. If we are to broaden it beyond that, I do not agree that we should satisfy those who argue that the family law courts should be heard in public.

The privacy of the people should be the over-riding consideration. Within that, we should find a mechanism whereby the public good can be served with consistency, good decisions can be taken and any difficulties can be ironed out. I would prefer if small steps were taken now and advanced in the future, rather than major steps being taken now which might lead to many difficulties for individuals and families. If aspects of family law cases are publicised, even without individuals being named, I envisage that details which are reported will enable people in local communities to identify those involved. This will certainly be the case in rural Ireland, by which I mean everywhere outside Dublin. The need to ensure that people cannot be identified in such a way should be the over-riding consideration in any legislation in this area.

We will be satisfied if the Minister deals with the matter in the way he outlined. If the changes that are made now do not completely correct the problems that exist, we can make further changes in the future. I am afraid that if we push the boat out too far, we will cause injustices to be done to those involved in family law cases, who face stressful and difficult circumstances as it stands.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Amendment No. 40 not moved.

Amendments Nos. 41, 43 and 46 are related and may be discussed together.

I move amendment No. 41:

In page 22, between lines 25 and 26, to insert the following subsection:

"(3) Persons reporting proceedings to which the relevant enactments relate shall be accredited by the Courts Service and the Minister may make regulations relating to the terms of accreditation of such persons, their access to such proceedings and their terms of reference.".

The subject of amendment No. 41 has already been addressed. I am happy the Minister said he will look into it. I have said enough about the amendment.

A great deal has been said about these amendments. Like the Minister, I want to ensure that journalists cannot report on, and perhaps identify, individuals in the family law courts. We have to protect such people at all times. Amendment No. 46 relates to the categories of persons who can report on cases. The Minister has already addressed this subject. Does he envisage that students will be allowed to attend? I refer, for example, to a person who is studying for a Ph.D. or other thesis.

I would refer to such people as "researchers" rather than "students".

I agree that "researchers" is a more appropriate term. Will the Minister consider allowing individuals, other academics or consultants commissioned by the Courts Service or the Government to report on family law cases? The information that emerges from such research can be very valuable and we can learn a great deal from it. We hear of many people who are unhappy with the manner in which such cases are dealt with in camera. Perhaps we can make improvements on the basis of the information that will be secured from those who attend family law cases. Will the Minister consider making arrangements to allow representatives of support agencies, such as Women’s Aid, the Rape Crisis Centres and women’s refuges, to attend cases so they can support people who have come to them looking for support?

If the Minister allows researchers, academics and consultants to attend family law hearings, it does not necessarily follow that the proceedings will not be reported on, in a broader sense, given that some such people write for newspapers. It is a difficult area and it will be very difficult to frame it.

It is obvious that is it a good idea to allow some type of friend to accompany those involved in family law cases to hearings. People involved in organisations such as those mentioned by Senator Terry may fulfil such a role. One might want one's first cousin to attend as a supporter. We will have to deal with this matter flexibly. As Senator O'Meara said, if we make provisions by category, the worst possible person in the world might fit into a category. A person who is allowed to attend as a "researcher" might be researching a biography of one of the people involved in the hearing. One might not breach a person's privacy while sitting through a family law case involving him or her, but one could write a book afterwards that relies on the facts of the case but does not mention where they were sourced. We have to be very careful. When I return to this issue on Report Stage, I will take into account the views that have been expressed today.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Amendments Nos. 42 and 44 are related and may be discussed together by agreement.

I move amendment No. 42:

In page 22, subsection (3), between lines 30 and 31, to insert the following paragraph:

"(a) The Incorporated Council of Law Reporting for Ireland,”.

Amendment No. 42 is straightforward. I welcome section 31, to which the Minister has already referred. It allows information about family law proceedings to be given in disciplinary proceedings. My amendment intends to ensure that such information will be given to the law reporting council.

I will consider the amendment in the context of what is necessary.

I do not propose to pursue my amendments Nos. 43 and 46.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Amendments Nos. 43 and 44 not moved.
Progress reported; Committee to sit again.