Close to half of children involved in family disputes are never asked how they feel about the situation, or what their wishes might be, according to new research.

Researchers from Lancaster and Swansea Universities conducted a study for the Nuffield Family Justice Observatory, an independent organisation which researches family law, with a special focus on improving outcomes for children. The researchers tallied cases involving children made across England and Wales in 2019, each involving section 8 of the Children Act 1989. This concerns living arrangements for children following divorce or separation, when the parents have been unable to reach an amicable agreement between themselves. They typically result in a ‘child arrangements order’ specifying where they will live and how often and for how long they will see the other parent, but such legal orders can also address other far-reaching aspects of the children’s lives.

Long-lasting impact

In the new report, the Nuffield Family Justice Observatory explained the far-reaching nature of family court cases:

“Decisions made within private law children’s proceedings can have a very significant and long-lasting impact on the lives of children and their families. They can include who children live with and spend time with, as well as more specific questions such as what name they are known by or whether they are brought up in a particular religion.”

Approximately half the 67,000 children surveyed by the research team were never formally asked for their views on their families’ circumstances. Surprisingly, older children were no more likely to be asked about their “wishes and feelings” than younger ones.

The importance of being heard

The Children Act 1989, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, and the European Convention on Human Rights all cite the importance of allowing children involved in family disputes to express their views. However, there is currently no formal mechanism within English family law for doing so. The Children Act 1989 does state that the welfare of children must be the court’s “paramount consideration” in any case involving them, and that decisions made should include consideration of their “wishes and feelings” if they are old enough and show an understanding of their family situation.

In some cases, welfare reports are compiled by social workers, and these may include the views of the children involved. In other instances, courts appoint a guardian to intervene on behalf of children and protect their welfare, but both measures are only taken in a minority of cases and do not always involve direct communication with the youngsters in question.

The Nuffield findings come in spite of previous research showing that consultation helps many children feel more positive about the outcomes of court cases they have been caught up in, and that many youngsters feel distress if their views are not sought.

Children feeling ignored

Lisa Harker is director the Nuffield Family Justice Observatory. She said:

“Hugely important decisions are made about a child’s life during private law proceedings – but a strikingly large proportion of children aren’t seen by the professionals involved, and have no voice. Children of all ages – even older children and teenagers, who are routinely expected to make important decisions about other aspects of their lives – are not being consulted. Worryingly, children might feel completely ignored, even invisible, and that their views aren’t valued.”

The Family Justice Observatory report, Uncovering Private Family Law: How often do we hear the voice of the child, is available here.