Why the delay and confusion on domestic violence privacy?

The proposed Domestic Violence Bill appears to have made little progress since Frances Fitzgerald published heads in July. The Bill would have closed a glaring oversight in Irish domestic violence law which I have written about before. As Irish law stands, domestic violence orders are granted in private court sittings but breaches are prosecuted in open court with no reporting restrictions. With a general election looming the Bill is unlikely to be passed by the current Oireachtas, raising the likely prospect that this damaging loophole will persist for years to come.

John Burns had an interesting piece in today’s Sunday Times on privacy and reporting which mentioned a Press Ombudsman ruling that starkly highlighted this loophole.

[T]he Sligo Weekender … reported on a case before the District Court in which a man was charged over an altercation with his estranged partner. The newspaper named the couple and said they had two children, whose ages were given. No reporting restrictions appear to have been imposed by the Judge, and the children featured in the evidence.

The case involved a prosecution for the breach of a safety order. Like all family law cases, applications for safety orders are heard in private court sessions with only the parties and their lawyers present, along with the judge and court clerk. The order itself, if granted, is served on the respondent and the local Gardaí, but no-one else finds out about it. However, breach of a safety order is a criminal offence and is prosecuted in open court.

The mother in the Sligo case wrote a letter to the Sligo Weekender saying that

printing both parents’ names and the children’s ages was the same as printing the children’s names.

The Press Ombudsman upheld two grounds of her complaint: that it breached the Code of Practice in relation to privacy and the rights of children.

An account of the court proceedings could have been published in the public interest and at the same time the right to privacy of the children could have been protected.  By naming the parents of the children and giving their ages this did not happen. The newspaper in its defence said that the judge had not imposed any restrictions on court reporting.  However it is my understanding that the protection of children applies in all instances and that there is no requirement on the judge to draw this to the attention of any journalist present in court …

By publishing the names of the children’s parents and their ages the newspaper failed to have regard for the vulnerability of the children.  The Court and Civil Law (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2013 permits journalists to attend and report on family and child law proceedings provided the anonymity of any children involved is protected. In the report in the Sligo Weekender the anonymity of the children was not protected and therefore there was a clear breach of [the Code].  It is not my function as Press Ombudsman to determine if the 2013 Act was breached, my function is only to make a decision on any breach of the Code of Practice.

This analysis is problematic as the understanding referred to in relation to the protection of children is unclear. It may relate to the later reference to the 2013 Act, but that legislation deals with reporting on family and child law proceedings. The prosecution of a breach of a safety order involves criminal proceedings, not family or child law proceedings (despite the fact that the order itself originates in family law proceedings). The Ombudsman rightly states that it is not his function to make a determination on the 2013 Act, only the Code of Practice, but the overlap and conflict between the Code and ordinary court legislation is unhelpful and creates ambiguity.

While it is not uncommon for judges to make reporting restrictions in cases of this nature, there is no legal basis for doing so and I expect that any such restrictions could be successfully challenged. Indeed, the Ombudsman’s comments protect only the right to privacy of the children and not their mother. Local newspapers, meanwhile, tend to treat such cases sensitively and sometimes publish anonymised accounts of proceedings or do not publish a report at all.

We now have a totally unacceptable situation where there is specific legislation which addresses domestic violence and court reporting of proceedings generally, both of which permit reporting of cases of this nature. The only redress available to a victim wishing to preserve their privacy is to make an after-the-fact complaint under the non-statutory code of a self-regulating press. If a similar complaint were to arise again or be appealed to the Press Council the outcome is not certain. After all, the arguments made by the Sligo Weekender in this case were, on the basis of current law, correct.

There is an argument for publicising domestic violence cases as the lack of coverage of domestic violence generally in Ireland tends to distort public perception of the true scope of the problem. However, the decision as to whether or not the parties should be identified publicly should, in my view, always remain with the victims, as is the case with sexual offences. The reality of domestic violence is that the victims might often take a considerable time to both realise what is happening and to seek help. There are legal options available under the Domestic Violence Act with varying consequences and victims should always be encouraged to avail of them. However, the fact that breach of a domestic violence order can result in a victim’s deeply personal circumstances being fully reported on leads to a natural hesitance on the part of victims to push prosecutions and, sometimes, to even apply for a domestic violence order to begin with.

The change needed to the law is minor and uncontroversial. The slow pace of introducing it is, perhaps, just another symptom of the way in which legislative reforms are made in Ireland. This reporting loophole could easily and more appropriately have been closed by including a provision in the 2013 Miscellaneous Provisions Act but was instead put on the long finger of a consolidated act.

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