By Ann O'Loughlin
A High Court judge has made directions concerning the entitlement to report on applications for secure care orders for vulnerable children.
The directions made by Ms Justice Leonie Reynolds in a particular case have knock-on effects for similar cases.
The Child Care Law Reporting Project and an academic researcher, who is a practising barrister, had applied for permission to attend and report applications under amended provisions, commenced last January, of the Child Care Act. They also sought access to relevant court documents.
The application arose amid concerns about a lack of clarity concerning entitlement to report proceedings under Part IVA of the amended 1991 Act, which provides a statutory basis for the making of secure care orders.
Before Part IVA was commenced last January, secure care proceedings were conducted under the High Court's inherent jurisdiction to vindicate the rights of children at risk.
Such proceedings were subject to reporting restrictions preventing publication or broadcast of any matters which might identify the child involved.
The amended Part IVA states "proceedings under this part shall be heard otherwise than in public".
It does not contain a provision similar to Section 29.5 of the Child Care Amendment Act 2007 which allowed, in stipulated circumstances, for reporting and publication of applications under Parts III, IV and V of the 1991 Act.
In a judgment released today, Ms Justice Reynolds found the CCLRP and the researcher could attend court and report on the proceedings before her and, subject to certain protocols, get access to certain documents.
The Child and Family Agency had not objected to reporting by either the CCLRP, the researcher or bona fide members of the press but queried whether, as a result of the new provisions, the court retained jurisdiction to permit that.
In her decision, the judge held the court retains discretion to lift the in camera rule in secure care proceedings.
The provisions of Section 23NH of the 1991 Act, as amended, do not impose a "mandatory" obligation that such proceedings are heard in camera, she held.
She agreed with the Legal Aid Board and the child's court-appointed guardian the new provisions should be interpreted in a manner that complies with the Constitution and ECHR provisions concerning a court's discretion to lift in camera rules.
She noted the Courts and Civil Law (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2013 allowed for bona fide members of the press to attend such proceedings and the court having power to make direction in that regard.
In this case, she was satisfied the best interests of the child were met by acceding to the application of the CCLRP and the researcher, subject to the child's privacy rights being protected by anonymising any reporting and publications.
After her judgment, Jeremy Erwin, of Hayes Solicitors, representing the Irish Times, asked that his client be permitted to attend and report such proceedings.
The Irish Times, he noted, is part of a pool of four court reporters in the Four Courts. The judge directed the Irish Times and other members of the pool could report on similar proceedings subject to restrictions preventing publication of any material that might or would tend to identify the child involved.
Any breach would amount to criminal contempt, she stressed.
Gerry Durcan SC, for the child's guardian, said he had no issue with "responsible" reporting by experienced journalists who understand the cases involved very vulnerable children but had concerns about inexperienced others seeking to report.
The judge directed bona fide members of the press may attend and report such applications but, before the court sits to hear such cases, they must make themselves known to the court registrar and produce satisfactory identification such as a National Union of Journalists card.