Cases to be heard in private to protect kids: Shanmugam

THERE is a difference between public interest and what the public is interested in, Law Minister K. Shanmugam said yesterday while explaining why cases heard by the new Family Justice Courts will largely remain private.

He was responding to Workers’ Party chairman and Aljunied GRC MP Sylvia Lim’s questions on why the proceedings of this court will be private by default.

The interests of the children must also be protected, the minister added.

Ms Lim contended that the clause stipulating “in-camera” or private hearings unless otherwise stated would be “a significant departure from the open justice concept applicable to the other courts, maintaining the courts as open and public and to which the public shall generally have access”.

Having a closed court was also a change from the current situation pertaining to family cases, where many family-related proceedings are heard in open court, such as divorces, contested maintenance applications and protection orders, and contested inheritance cases.

Even in the current Juvenile Court that handles cases of youth in trouble, the Children and Young Persons Act permits the presence of bona fide representatives of news agencies, she pointed out.

While acknowledging the need for private hearings in some cases – such as those involving children – she wondered whether it was clear that the media should not report on family cases at all.

While sensational, intrusive stories were justifiably disliked, she argued that an accurate media report could increase public awareness of family law, rights and obligations. “It is in the public interest that the layman has some understanding of family law principles and how the Family Court works, since it is an area of law touching all our lives directly,” she said.

The former law lecturer added that one of the hallmarks of an open justice system was that the general public was able to observe and scrutinise how the courts function. “There is a risk that the secrecy surrounding the Family Justice Courts may undermine public confidence in it.”

The recommendation for private hearings was made by the Family Justice Committee, comprising expert representatives from the Government, law and social service fraternities.

Responding to her concerns, Mr Shanmugam, who has been a top legal eagle himself, said that after extensive consultations, the committee felt that the “full entrails of the family disputes should not be laid out in public to protect the children”.

He added that judges were being given the discretion to order public hearings, or make public judgments when necessary.

“Precisely what details, what cases are published, whether it’s published in the media, those are things that I would rather not do by diktat,” he said. Judges were best placed to make those decisions. “And they must have the discretion to do what is right in the appropriate cases.”

Source: Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. Permission required for reproduction.

Straits Times
05 Aug 2014
Radha Basu