Is this opening a window on family law, or voyeurism of the worst kind?
THANKS to the intervention of those who rule us, there’ll soon be a new game in town, courtesy of your local newspaper. It’ll be called “Spot the Family in Trouble”. Now that it’s been decided that reporters such as myself can report on family law cases, we’ll be able to provide hours of fun for our readers as they try to identify those unfortunates whose lives and families are coming apart.
Yes, all in the name of enlightenment and education, you’ll be able to read blow-by-blow accounts of marital rows and stresses, confused and frightened children, sundered relationships and much, much worse, as we take you inside the family courts. The fact that neither you nor I have any business being a spectator to such misery is neither here nor there, it seems.
I frequently sit in court as people involved in family law cases wait to be called into the Judge’s chambers to have their cases heard in private. To preserve anonymity, the clerk who calls the cases only uses their initials, but I’m never comfortable with this and I imagine those waiting for their case to be heard are a lot more nervous and self-conscious. The last thing they want around them is a hovering reporter, and the last thing this reporter wants is to record their private tragedy for the titillation (or education) of others.
Murder and mayhem, a seedy swindle, a well-argued drunk driving case; better still, a bitterly fought land dispute — all grist to my news mill. The disintegration of a family, however, is beyond the pale, and I’ll hang up my notebook before I intrude on that.
Criminal law cases are fair game in my book, even allowing for reports in The Tuam Herald being allegedly responsible for killing off more mammies than did Genghis Khan’s Mongol hoards. But the ice is thinner when it comes to civil cases: they’re sometimes interesting, but an element of voyeurism is beginning to creep in here. And now we have family law, an area far too serious to be thrown into the public arena of everyday gossip.
The basic argument put forward for allowing the likes of me to report on family law cases is that this will educate the public on how the system works. Twaddle. I’m a hack: my trade is news. I’m not a public relations mouthpiece for the judicial system.
If I’m in a room where Jack and Jill are threshing out the details of their separation (who gets the kids, the amount of maintenance, the access allowed etc), I won’t be there to present the tedious minutiae of yet another domestic wreck. I’ll be waiting for Jill to blurt out the kind of embarrassing detail that will make a good headline and catch readers’ attention. “He can’t be relied on to pay maintenance because he blows half the household budget on golf outings and clubs,” she might say. The Judge will no doubt assure her that there are ways of combating such a scenario, up to and including prison. Do I care about that? Why spoil a good story with the mundane facts? I’ll have my headline: “Golf widow pleads with judge to curb hubby’s fairway jaunts”.
My opening paragraph will read: “At Tuam Family Court this week, a Judge warned a wayward, golf-mad husband that he could be exchanging his clubs for prison table-tennis bats if he continues his habit of leaving the household budget behind the bar at the 19th.”
Confidentiality? — My arse. The paper would be pulled apart at the same 19th hole and within minutes the identity of the family in question would be public knowledge.
It’s not that we reporters are malicious or insensitive. It’s simply the nature of the beast.
Remember the story about the frog and the scorpion? They meet on a riverbank and both need to cross the river. The scorpion asks whether there is any chance of the frog carrying him over on his back, as he can’t swim. “No way,” says the frog, “you’re a scorpion and my sworn enemy. You might kill me.” But the scorpion explains that if he stings the frog as it swims then they’ll both drown, and there’s nothing in that for him. The frog is impressed by this logic and invites the scorpion to hop up on his back. The two are half way across when the scorpion stings the frog. With its dying breath the frog groans, “Why did you do that? Now we’ll both drown.” “Because I’m a scorpion,” it replies as they both go under.
Those pushing this proposal to open up family law cases to the scrutiny of the press are acting like naive frogs expecting us scorpions not to behave like scorpions. It would surely be better all around if the frogs were to look after this delicate and ultimately non-newsworthy aspect of court reporting.
In urban areas there might be some chance of maintaining the anonymity of those involved, but in rural areas it’s much easier to identify neighbours.
“Wife demands half of 48-acre farm and share of plumbing business in settlement” screams our headline. No names, but how long in a close-knit area would it take to connect the dots?
First, you see, it’s Tuam Court, so you have a fair idea of the area implicated. Secondly, the mention of 48 acres is a dead giveaway and the plumbing business is the clincher.
And not everyone has to twig it. All it takes is one local busybody who knows everyone’s details and who can match the information with the family down the road. Now, a commodity trader in gossip is hardly going to keep a juicy bit of information like this to himself. Such a story can be traded for other information and so the petty spiral descends. Newspapers are in the story — not the social work — business. We’ll end up pig in the middle, with no discernable gain apart from the dubious honour of “educating” the public.
As a sweetener for us, our legislators have, in their wisdom, sanctioned a €30,000 fine and up to three years’ imprisonment if I happen to get things wrong when reporting on family law. With incentives like these I imagine reporters will be queuing up to cover family cases. I mean, what could go wrong? You have two people at breaking point and at each other’s throats, probably in dire financial straits and each with conflicting tales to tell. More than likely there’ll be children thrown into the equation, extended families, even “blended” families and maybe disputed custody of Fido to boot. The Judge is bound to ensure confidentiality is maintained and that the case is fairly and accurately reported, so when she picks up The Tuam Herald and reads that a couple have agreed that Fido will spend the week with its mistress and weekends with its alcoholic, misogynist scrooge of a master who plays senior hurling for the Rossmuck Slashers, I’ll no doubt get a communication advising me to bring my toothbrush and spare jocks when turning up at the next court sitting.
Journalism can be a crude conduit
IT’S not that informing the public of what happens behind the seal of the “in camera” hearing is wrong in itself, but doing it via such a crude conduit as myself is not necessarily the best way to go about it.
Surely, in this digital age, with practically every student striving to achieve a PhD before they even apply for a job in Supermac’s, there’s plenty of scope here for legal science students to gain practical experience through monitoring family law cases? If the aim is to shine a light on the murky world of family law then it’s hardly necessary to report on each and every mundane proceeding. A representative cross sample would suffice, and the public could be made aware of how such situations are dealt with via the kind of research and presentations delivered by the ESRI. And if not that, then what about trained, specialist journalists employed to cover family courts on a random basis? They could provide reports to the Courts Service, which could then decide where best to publish them.
I recently commented to a friend that in this 175th year of The Tuam Herald, the only technical innovation the reporter covering the Tuam Assizes in 1837 would have to contend with today, is the ubiquitous biro. His tools would have been pencil or ink and paper; so are mine. He would take notes, bring them back to the office and transcribe them; so do I. I’m not complaining. In my increasingly high-tech world, the dinosaur approach to court reporting has its charms. But maybe in the case of family law, a little technological slack might be cut. Why not record some of the sessions and get them transcribed? Then let legal academics decide which provides the fairest representation of how our family law system works.
Any option is better than me — though unquestionably a paragon of impartiality and discretion — sitting there, quill in hand, to witness the mortification and despair of those whose dreams have been shattered, with people who once loved and supported each other squabbling over the crumbs of their collapsed lives. The likelihood of them encountering the Judge or the clerk in the supermarket is slim, but the odds narrow quite a bit when it comes to a local reporter.
The easy option of letting the media get the message out smacks too much of yet another Irish solution to an Irish problem. In the past the State abdicated responsibility in many areas. It farmed out care for orphans and responsibility for the punishment of juveniles to the industrial schools. It shrugged off its mandate for education and health and abandoned single mothers. Given all of that, can it now not come up with something better than farming out transparency on family law to hacks like myself, while washing its hands of yet another awkward issue?
With all due respect, m’lords, it’s back to the legal pads, methinks.