Dáil debates

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

2:00 pm

Photo of Caoimhghín Ó CaoláinCaoimhghín Ó Caoláin (Cavan-Monaghan, Sinn Fein)
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Question 22: To ask the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs the date on which she will introduce regulations to amend the in camera rule in courts. [33318/12]

Photo of Frances FitzgeraldFrances Fitzgerald (Minister, Department of Children; Dublin Mid West, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Deputy for his question on the in camera rule in the courts. This was clearly identified in the child death report as an issue and it was felt that there was a need for more transparency. I believe that there is scope for more transparency in regard to the private nature of court proceedings relating to child welfare and protection cases. We certainly need to put in place a mechanism to ensure that the learning from such cases is shared across the system while continuing to protect minors' interests and maintain anonymity. I have had discussions with the Minister, Deputy Shatter, on this and he will be bringing forward legislation in regard to the in camera rule.

There is a provision in the Child Care Act which permits me also to specify a class of persons to publish reports of proceedings under Part III, IV or VI of the Act, once I am satisfied that the publication of reports prepared in accordance with subsection (5)(a) by such persons is likely to provide information which will assist in the better operation of the Act, in particular in relation to the care and protection of children. There is a useful parallel under the Civil Liability and Courts Act 2004 which allows, subject to direction of the court, bona fide researchers and lawyers to attend hearings for the purpose of preparing anonymised reports on the proceedings and court decisions. That was the basis, as the Deputy will probably be aware, of the work that Dr. Carol Coulter did in this regard under the auspices of the Courts Service.

With this in mind it is my intention to bring forward regulations to allow for the reporting on child welfare and protection proceedings. The exact nature of those regulations will be informed by consultations with my Department, the other relevant Ministers, the Minister for Justice and Equality and the Courts Service. The date for introduction of any regulations will obviously be contingent on the outcome of those consultations. I am keen to progress this matter as quickly as possible.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House.

The Child Death Review Group maintains that keeping a shroud of secrecy around child care cases does not necessarily mean that the interests of minors are always protected as well as they can be, as practices which may need overhauling are shielded from scrutiny. If we are to truly commit ourselves to reform of child welfare and protection services, then this matter must be adequately addressed and it is my intention to do so, in consultation with the Minister for Justice and Equality.

Photo of Caoimhghín Ó CaoláinCaoimhghín Ó Caoláin (Cavan-Monaghan, Sinn Fein)
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In the aftermath of the report of the Independent Child Death Review Group, the Minister indicated that she was of a mind to have this changed. I welcome her indication that the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Shatter, is to facilitate bringing forward a change in this regard. Is the Minister in any position to advise us when that might come about? Are we likely to see that proposed change any time soon? Will it be in the autumn schedule of legislative change? Is the Minister able to elaborate in any way as to what change will be proposed? She is aware that the Ombudsman for Children, Emily Logan, has highlighted the difficulties in accessing information. She was significantly curtailed in an investigation into one of those cases highlighted in the said report of September 2008 to which we both referred. The in camera rule is being used continuously as a means, a barrier, to full exposure of the details in any particular case. She indicated that the excuse proffered by the HSE at the time was the restrictions on the in camera rule. This excuse has been and is being used. At least up to last month, she was facing four legal challenges to investigations, not all before the courts but all challenges relating to specific investigations which the Office of the Ombudsman for Children, was undertaking.

We must recognise that the operation of the in camera rule is very problematic and we must ensure that the whole area of child care and provision is not invisible to us because of other elements of the Statute Book. I would welcome any elaboration the Minister can offer about the Minister, Deputy Shatter's proposal. I emphasise that in line with her own commentary earlier this year that this should be done as quickly as possible.

Photo of Frances FitzgeraldFrances Fitzgerald (Minister, Department of Children; Dublin Mid West, Fine Gael)
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I spoke to the Minister, Deputy Shatter, about this issue today. I cannot give the Deputy an indication of precisely when this legislation will come forward but the Minister is actively considering it. That is progress because this issue has been around for many years and has never been dealt with. The Minister, Deputy Shatter will bring forward legislation to deal with it. I am in a position to inform the Deputy that I will introduce regulations so that child care cases can be reported. The shroud of secrecy has not been in the interests of children. It is important to protect the identities of children and the identifying details of cases but there is a way to do so, as Dr. Carol Coulter showed in her research. The Deputy rightly states it is important to make children visible in the courts in the same way as the constitutional referendum should make children visible in the Constitution. Likewise, this issue is relevant with regard to a discussion of court hearings involving children.

Photo of Caoimhghín Ó CaoláinCaoimhghín Ó Caoláin (Cavan-Monaghan, Sinn Fein)
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I welcome the second point because this was the thrust of my question in which I referred to regulations rather than legislative change. I thank the Minister for indicating that she intends to address this matter within her own portfolio, the means of which allows her to progress it. Let us hope that between both we will see a situation where the practice heretofore of some hiding from proper and full scrutiny will be at an end.