Leading female specialist children’s lawyer, Lucinda Connell of Major Family Law, the North East’s top divorce and children’s specialists, comments that Simon Hughes, the Justice Minister, announced that children shall have a greater say in family court cases as he addressed the Family Justice Young People’s Board.
Children involved in any type of family case – whether to remove them into care or disputes about child arrangements following relationship breakdowns– will be able to have their views heard when decisions are made that will affect them.
The changes announced are designed to make it easier for children and young people to communicate their views in court proceedings. The options include meetings, letters or pictures or by way of a third person in addition to their CAFCASS (Children and Families Court Advisory and Support Service) officer or social worker. Simon Hughes also announced the government’s support for out of court dispute resolution services, such as family mediation, to be more child inclusive and went on to say:
“For too long, children and young people have struggled to have their voices heard during the family court process. Although they are often at the centre of proceedings, the views of children and how they feel are often not heard, with other people making vital decisions for them.” “I’ve been really impressed with Family Justice Young People’s Board (FJYPB) and the arguments which its members put forward. This is why I have taken steps to make sure that children and young people from the age of 10 will be able to express their views in cases which affect them. Young people are some of the most vulnerable in society, and it is vitally important that we make sure they are at the heart of the family justice system.”
Last year there were 90,000 children involved in new cases in the family courts. There is currently provision in the law relating to children for the wishes and feelings of the children to be taken into consideration when a decision is to be made about them. This is only one factor to be taken into account and it is a matter for the Court, in light of the age and maturity of the child, what weight should be placed upon those wishes and feelings.
The government believes that the voices of children and young people should be heard when decisions are made that affect them and, under the new proposals, all young people aged 10 and above will have a greater opportunity to have their voice heard. Bethany Shepherd – aged 19 years, is a member of the FJYPB and has been through the family justice system. She said, “In my case, I had to wait 4 years before my voice was heard and I was considered to be too young to know my own mind or listened to individually and simply just lumped together with my younger sister. This is far too long and meant that I spent much of my childhood fighting just to have my voice heard. The work being done currently on the voice of the child is really encouraging to see and is definitely a step in the right direction for family justice.”
A range of initiatives will help make communication easier, including facilities for children and young people to communicate with a judge by way of letters or pictures. CAFCASS are also working on various resources such as a ‘Court Gaming App’ (which will help explain the court system to a young person) as well as welcome packs and paper-based guides. The plans announced on 19th February, are expected to complement reforms to guidance on judges seeing children which are presently being considered by a judge-led working group set up by the President of the Family Division, Sir James Munby.