Following on from his speeches at the Voice of The Child Conference last July and at the Annual Mediation Family Law Conference the following month, in which he talked about focusing on making children central to family law proceedings, Justice Minister Simon Hughes has pushed forward a move to have children’s voices heard in care proceedings and divorces.

The initiative will allow children from the age of ten to express their views about what should happen to them in care proceedings as well as their parents’ divorce or separation. Exactly how this will be implemented remains to be seen, but we are told that the range of resources made available to children will include the option to write letters or draw pictures for the family law judge working on their case, as well as use a ‘gaming app’ created by CAFCASS to explain how the family system works.

Children surveyed on this aspect of family law in the past have made it clear that they would like their sentiments to be relayed word for word in documents prepared by them, without filters from social workers and other professionals. Their concern is that their wishes and feelings can sometimes get lost in translation. At the same time, professionals are urging caution when trying to understand the exact wishes and feelings of children, advising family court professionals to prioritise a child’s conduct during the process over what they say or write. There are obvious merits to each wish – children must feel empowered by the process, as well as protected.

This proposal though, is not new. Hughes did promise as long ago as last year to amplify the voice of the child in a system which often drowns it out, and which, as a result, can systematically fail to find suitable outcomes for children in both private and public family law cases. The use of letters and pictures too, have been a feature of welfare reports for some time, so we are not sure how this will differ materially under the new proposals, if at all.

In his speech in 2014, Simon Hughes wanted to see the government:

-Ensuring children were made aware of their rights during proceedings;
-Allowing children to meet with judges, not just to learn about how the court process works, but to express their wishes and feelings directly;
-Creating proper pathways which would allow children to give CAFCASS their views in writing;
-Giving children the ability to give feedback about their experience of the process;
-Making it law that all children involved in proceedings must have their views heard before any decisions are made;
-That these measures will be available to all children aged 10 and over (Hughes says that age threshold was chosen because it is also the threshold for Criminal Responsibility, suggesting that if a child is old enough to be held responsible at 10 for a crime, then they must also be able to express their views about their future).
-Where children below 10 wish to have their views heard, they will be able to do so;
-Children who are vulnerable will need to be treated differently to those who are not in terms of expression, and may need someone to express their views on their behalf;
-To make the Voice of the Child central to family mediation processes.

The Voice of The Child Movement has been steadily building momentum since 2011 with the introduction of guidelines for judges talking to children which all but seem to have vanished, but as of yet, very little else has been witnessed by those of us waiting for the system to take this concept and develop it properly. Let’s hope this latest affirmation from our Justice Minister makes it past a talking point and gets implemented into the family justice system’s process.

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