Children to be given greater voice in care proceedings
More will be done to ensure children over the age of 10 who are involved in care proceedings or custody cases have their views heard in court, the government has announced.
Under the Children Act 1989, courts considering a public or private law order in relation to a child already have to pay regard to “the wishes and feelings” of the child concerned.
However, speaking at an event today, justice minister Simon Hughes said that the legal right is often overlooked.
“Children and young people have a legal right to be heard before decisions are made about their own future, and where decisions are being made that will impact on them,” Hughes said at a conference held by the Family Justice Young People’s Board today.
“Too often that legal right is not being exercised or it is being interpreted to mean others can make a presumption about a child’s view – often for the best of intentions and acting in their interest, but nevertheless the outcome is that the child does not feel that their own distinct voice has been heard.”
Hughes said the government is committed to all children and young people having a role in all family proceedings affecting them so that they can put across their views and feelings.
“It is my clear intention that where disputes about children are settled in court or through an alternative form of resolving disputes such as mediation, children and young people aged 10 and over will in the future be given the chance to make clear their views, in person or if preferred in an another way, as to what is the best resolution of the family dispute in their interest,” he said.
Hughes said he will work alongside the president of the Family Division, Sir James Munby, and other family court judges, as well as the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (Cafcass), local authorities, and young people to implement this change.
Ensuring children and young people are able to make their views known was one of the recommendations to come out of the Family Justice Review, which was published in November 2011.
It said that children should, as early as possible, be supported to make their views known, and older children should be offered a menu of options, to lay out the ways in which they could, if they wish, do this.
Anthony Douglas, Cafcass chief executive, said the government had outlined “some progressive and practical ways” for how children can be more included in their own cases.
He added: “All agencies will be sitting down together to find a way to make these changes happen on the ground in a way which improves the responsiveness and sensitivity of the whole family justice system to children and young people who need our help, and to find better and better ways of improving their lives.”
Andrew Webb, immediate past president of the Association of Director’s of Children’s Services, said his organisation is in favour of giving young people more of a say, but attention must be paid to how it is achieved.
“In public law cases, the court spends a lot of time dealing with very difficult issues of child abuse, sexual abuse, and has to hear detailed evidence about the child’s life, which is not always an appropriate thing to put children in front of,” he said.
“There’s a lot to do to get children of an appropriate age engaged in the process, and to debate or examine what is in their best interest, in a way that is not making the system abusive.
“It can also be the case that what the child wants, and what is in their best interests, are not necessarily the same thing.
“We would have to make sure courts, and particularly judges, take the child’s view in the context of the much bigger picture.”