In a ruling which underlines that bankruptcy is not a private matter that can be kept from the public gaze, a newspaper has been granted permission to view and report the contents of the court file in respect of a property developer who is said to have run up debts of €1.5 billion in the Irish property meltdown.
Once one of the richest men in Ireland, the developer was the focus of a Sunday Times of Ireland investigation into so called ‘bankruptcy tourism’. Brought low by the collapse of the Irish economy, he successfully presented his own bankruptcy petition to the High Court in London in 2012. The newspaper sought permission to inspect and report the lengthy witness statement and other documents that accompanied the petition which was granted on the basis that the developer had his ‘centre of main interest’ in England and Wales.
Granting the newspaper the relief sought, the Chief Bankruptcy Registrar accepted that it was engaged in serious journalism on a matter of public interest, was not simply embarking on a ‘fishing expedition’ in search of a sensational exclusive story and that the principle of open justice prevailed.
He expressed sympathy for the developer, who had argued that he ‘deserved a respite’, that press interest in his affairs ‘could only be prurient’ and that the issue of bankruptcy tourism had already been exhaustively aired in the media. However, the Registrar noted that the ‘default position’ was that court proceedings should be conducted in public and that it was for the developer to show that a departure from ordinary principles of open justice was justified.
He concluded: “The bankruptcy tourism question remains very much alive and is a legitimate matter of public interest in this country, in Ireland, in Germany and Europe generally. The number of cases this court hears, to say nothing of those heard in other courts, attests to that. The reasons put forward by (the developer) do not, in my view, warrant a departure from the presumption in favour of access to the court file”.
The newspaper gave an undertaking that, in reporting the contents of the file, it would respect the developer’s privacy and would not stray into matters personal to him and his family.