The Children’s Ombudsman has warned that plans to allow media reporting of child care proceedings do not adequately protect children’s privacy and may add to their stress in court.
Ombudsman Emily Logan said flaws in the Courts Bill 2013, which contains provisions relaxing reporting restrictions, risk exposing children’s identities and discouraging them from giving evidence.
Ms Logan has written to Justice Minister Alan Shatter urging him to reconsider this part of the bill before it becomes legislation later this year.
Family law and child care cases in the civil courts have been heard “in camera”, meaning in private, raising concerns about undue secrecy and an inability to see whether judges act consistently.
Publishing the bill earlier this year, Mr Shatter said: “Media access and reporting of cases will add transparency to the conduct of family law and child care proceedings and will provide valuable information on the operation of the law in this area.”
Ms Logan said she fully supported the idea and the intention behind it but had concerns about the practicalities of operating a more open system and its potential impact on children.
Under the new law, only “bona fide representatives of the press” would be allowed into court and any details that might identify a child must be excluded from their reports, under threat of severe penalties.
But Ms Logan said there was no definition as to who was a bona fide press representative and she urged the minister to set up an accreditation system specifically for such cases.
She also warned that allowing more than one journalist into any case could be problematic given that each journalist may include and exclude different details from their reports which individually might protect the identity of a child but collectively could expose them.
She said this was of particular concern where local media might report on a case heard in their local court so the location of the child would be hard to disguise.
Another problem could arise from the reporting of cases contemporaneously as a child might hear or read about a case that took place the same day their own case was in court and realise the story was about them.
As most cases required numerous dates in court before they were resolved, Ms Logan warned: “This may have fundamental consequences for the child care case.
“This is particularly likely to be true in cases of sexual abuse. If a child becomes aware from contemporaneous media reportage of what is occurring in the case, this may cause the child distress — particularly if the child learns of denials by the parents of the abuse. It may increase pressure on the child to retract his or her account of the abuse.”
A pilot Child Care Law Reporting Project backed by the Department of Children and Youth Affairs is under way with limited reports of selective cases being published every few months. Ms Logan said this project should be allowed to finish and be assessed before any changes to the law were considered.
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