Dáil Éireann - Volume 515 - 07 March, 2000

Written Answers. - Family Courts.

43. Ms McManus asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform if he has considered the possibility of moderating the operation of the in camera rule as it applied to family law cases to secure greater public awareness of the nature and scale of the issues dealt with and greater openness in the administration of justice in this area; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [6840/00]

Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform (Mr. O'Donoghue): Specific legislative provisions apply to family law proceedings, the Family Home Protection Act, 1976, the Family Law (Maintenance of Spouses and Children) Act, [1500] 1976, the Judicial Separation and Family Law Reform Act, 1989, the Family Law Act, 1995, the Domestic Violence Act, 1996 and the Family Law (Divorce) Act, 1996, which require the court to hold proceedings otherwise than in public. There is also a general provision in the law which gives the court discretion in other family law proceedings to hold them otherwise than in public and the general practice is to invoke this discretion. My Department continues to keep the law in this area under review.

In its 1996 report on family courts, the Law Reform Commission affirmed the importance of the right to privacy in family law cases on the basis that they frequently involve detailed discussion of personal relationships. However, the commission recommend that access by a bona fide researcher to such proceedings should be allowed by a judge subject to refusal only on the basis of compelling and stated reasons and that the attendance of students of family law should be allowed at the discretion of the judge. The commission's report was preceded by a Consultation Paper of 1994. As the Deputy will appreciate, the Law Reform Commission's recommendations fall far short of any major relaxation of the in camera rule, as it is called, for family law proceedings.

In its sixth report, the Working Group on a Courts Commission, established to review the operation of the courts, expressed support for the Law Reform Commission's proposal. It stated that a balance should be found between the right of privacy of litigants and children in family law cases and the right to a fair, transparent and accountable system of justice in the area. It also stated that policy reform, research, accountability and provision of adequate services cannot take place without accurate statistics from the courts on a regular basis. With these aims in mind, it recommended that a pilot project be set up for a period of one year whereby a researcher, who could be a barrister or a solicitor, would be appointed to work in the area. Such a researcher would have access to the family courts but would have the responsibility of ensuring that there would be no breach of the right to privacy of the individual litigant.

I understand the Courts Service, which now has responsibility for the management of the courts and the provision of information on the courts system to the public, is currently examining the matter with a view to establishing as soon as possible a pilot project as recommended by the working group on a courts commission.