August 8: Transparency in the interests of children

Speaking of his time as a young reporter, one of Ireland’s best modern writers, Kevin Barry, observed to the Leader a few months ago: “All of life passed through the Limerick courthouse. Misery, malevolence, the dark side of humanity … I tell ya, it made Angela’s Ashes look like The Wonderful World of Disney.”

Speaking of his time as a young reporter, one of Ireland’s best modern writers, Kevin Barry, observed to the Leader a few months ago: “All of life passed through the Limerick courthouse. Misery, malevolence, the dark side of humanity … I tell ya, it made Angela’s Ashes look like The Wonderful World of Disney.”

Barry, himself a native son of the city , reckoned that there was no better way to learn about what was really going on in a society than to spend a couple of days observing the goings-on in its local courts. When Barry was starting out, reporters were not allowed into family court hearings and public child care proceedings.

Spending time in that court room would only have strengthened the writer’s conviction about how much these frequently painful places can teach us about humanity. Since early last year, journalists have been permitted to enter family law hearings, on the basis that nothing they report will risk identifying those in court.For the second time in recent weeks, the Leader’s Anne Sheridan reports from that family law courtroom in the city. Her comprehensive account of how the futures of young Limerick children are being discussed by lawyers and ruled on by judges can be read on page 8. It frequently makes for painful reading.

“I just want my kids a few times a week,” a mother recently released from jail tells the judge. “I want to be able to bring them to the cinema and things like that.” When the judge asks the solicitor representing the children’s father if he would be in agreement, the reply is brutally succinct: “Oh God, no.”

Each case before the court – and there are far too many, every Wednesday – brings its own complexities, but there is a strong sense from reading about them that the views of the children themselves are notably absent. Of course, in some cases – for example the desperately sad story of a newborn baby taken into care – that is not possible, but when the most important factor in a marital break-up is how the couple’s children can best be protected from the fallout, there must be a better way for their voices to be heard. Important research undertaken by Dr Roisin O’Shea, a scholar funded by the Irish Research Council, found that of 1,087 family law hearings at Circuit Courts around the country between 2008 and 2012, “in no case were the views of any child heard directly by a judge ... On several occasions counsel asked the court if a child could speak with a judge; in all instances this request was refused”.

Many will endorse Dr O’Shea’s view that “going to court should be the option of last resort for those who are separating, not the port of first call”. While the Child and Family Relationships Bill published this March was not universally well received, it has had many powerful advocates, not least the Children’s Rights Alliance and Barnardos, both of which have campaigned vigorously for the best interests of children to be at the heart of the badly needed new legislation.

The Leader’s report this week conveys the huge challenges faced by those whose job it is to look after the interests of vulnerable children. It is right that the scale of these challenges should be understood by the general public, the majority of whom will have benefited from what every child craves: a happy and stable family environment.

Barnardos has previously noted that the nature and outcome of these cases was “shrouded in secrecy, with little regard to transparency, accountability and consistency in how cases are dealt with”.

Thankfully, that need no longer be the case. And for many reasons – chief among them the interests of the children involved – it is important that these often painful matters are not completely hidden away from the rest of society.