Children to be involved and seen to be involved in Family Court proceedings
Following Simon Hughes’ speech at the Voice of the Child conference on 24 July 2014, children (and young persons) of a sufficient age and maturity will be given the opportunity of meeting with the legal professionals involved with their case, or to submit their views in writing to voice their wishes and feelings. This includes CAFCASS, social workers, judges and legal representatives.
The age of 10 is said to be consistent with the current policies and practices operating in the UK, including the age of criminal responsibility. Notwithstanding this, CAFCASS will often meet with children as young as 7 to ascertain the child’s wishes and feelings. It is hoped that these changes will bring some certainty as to how old a child must be to have their views heard. The Family Justice Young People’s Board have also pushed for children to be kept informed throughout the proceedings.
The current law provides that a child’s welfare shall be the court’s paramount consideration when determining any question in relation to the child’s upbringing. Therefore, children must have their views heard regarding decisions that will impact their future. The Children Act 1989 and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child are just two examples that highlight the importance of children’s wishes in family proceedings. Despite this, Simon Hughes explained that “it is still too often that their views are not being heard”. This places the child at risk of being stuck in the middle of proceedings, not knowing what decisions are being made concerning their future. The government also plans to work with the mediation sector so that children have access to an independent mediator in cases which involve or affect them.
The changes are said to ensure that children are placed at the heart of the family justice system. Deputy Chairman of the Magistrates’ Association, Malcolm Richardson has nonetheless said “there is a balancing act to be struck to make sure that no child or young person feels pressurised into direct involvement, or that it might have a negative outcome”. In practice, it remains to be seen whether these changes will have any effect or indeed whether children’s views will be considered determinative in proceedings.