Colloquially, most of us would think of the word “publication” as meaning disseminating information in print, such as in the form of a newspaper or perhaps via social media posts. But the restriction on publication in family law of information regarding cases is much broader than the commonly understood meaning of the word. A recent case in the family court shows just how broad the restriction is, after a mother found herself being warned she was in breach of section 121 of the Family Law Act because she had shown court documents to a person who was not involved in her court proceedings.
The case of Sandex & Bondir (court-ordered pseudonyms) heard in the Family Court in Melbourne involved a mother who unsuccessfully appealed an order dismissing her application seeking leave to institute parenting proceedings regarding her teenage children. The mother, who was self-represented, had attempted to appeal the decision on several grounds, including that the primary judge had tried to “intimidate, threaten and manipulate” her by “falsely accusing [her] of breaching Section 121 of the Family Law Act”.
She had shown court-ordered reports to a woman who was not a party to the proceedings and as a result had received a warning by the primary judge about her actions constituting a breach of the Act. The primary judge told her that the person she had shown the documents to was, “as a result of your actions, able to identify those who are involved in the case. That’s a clear breach of 121 of the Act. You cannot show any of the documents in these proceedings to anyone without the leave of the court.”
The judge went on to explain the restriction on publication in family law further:
“Under the Act, the court is very, very strict on protecting the privacy of parties, particularly children, to proceedings and not allowing publication, which has got a very broad interpretation, of anything that would enable parties or children to be identified unless the court has consented to that taking place….Now, the Act is very serious in this, and it deposes that anyone who does so commits an offence punishable upon conviction by imprisonment for a period not exceeding one year. That’s how seriously the court takes it.”
There are some circumstances where publication is permitted. Relevantly, section 121(9)(f)(i) of the Act provides that the publication prohibition doesn’t apply if the recipient of the information is “(i) a person who is a member of a profession, in connection with the practice by that person of that profession or in the course of any form of professional training in which that person is involved”.
The mother sought to rely on that provision, arguing she had shown the documents to the woman so that she could undertake their “critique”. However the appeal judge did not find that the mother had proven that the person she had shown the documents to actually fell into this category.
Restriction on publication in family law court proceedings
Section 121 of the Act refers to restricting publishing “in a newspaper or periodical publication, by radio broadcast or television or by other electronic means, or otherwise disseminates to the public or to a section of the public by any means, any account of any proceedings or any part of any proceedings…that identifies: (a) a party to the proceedings; (b) a person who is related to, or associated with, a party to the proceedings or is, or is alleged to be, in any other way concerned in the matter to which the proceedings relate; or (c) a witness in the proceedings”.
So while we may think of “publishing” to the “public” as being disseminating information to a large group en masse, it can clearly also cover simply showing documents to a single person, as occurred in this case.
And the restriction on publication in family law should not be taken lightly, being a serious offence, punishable with a jail term of up to a year. In this case, the mother was let off the hook, with the primary judge having said she would not be prosecuted for the breach, “because I’m not believing you’ve done this in any kind of malicious or deliberate purpose”. Instead, the purpose of the warning had merely been to bring the breach to the mother’s attention, presumably to prevent her making further breaches in future.
Individuals who breach the restriction on publication in family law deliberately, however, certainly risk being punished for doing so.
The relevant section of the Family Law Act can be viewed here.
If you are interested, you can read this case here.
Would you like any assistance with a family law matter? If so, please contact Canberra family lawyer Cristina Huesch or one of our other experienced solicitors here at Alliance Legal Services on (02) 6223 2400.
Please note our blogs are not legal advice. For information on how to obtain the correct legal advice, please contact Alliance Legal Services.