When people, usually parents, involve the courts in relation to their children, Cafcass are automatically involved. Initially, their role is akin to triaging cases to identify those where the children are potentially at risk and in which they need to become more involved. Cafacss are also involved in cases initiated by the Local Authority where their concerns for a child’s safety trigger legal action independently of the parents.
Children do not appear in court in cases that relate to them. Children younger than 12 can have their ‘apparent’ wishes and feelings taken into consideration, as reported to the court by Cafcass. Very often it is reported that children display a clear sense of loyalty to both parents and feel torn. After that age, they are considered (potentially) mature enough to able to express their views clearly enough for the court to place more weight on them but again this is always through the reports of the Cafcass officer. Conveying a child’s wishes and feelings, in such a highly sensitive court process, is as difficult as it sounds.
It is widely considered by many judges and lawyers that hearing from children directly in cases would provide them with the voice that some crave, unfiltered by other professionals. Many children feel excluded from cases that will affect their lives fundamentally. Some argue that this exclusion may be seen as a breach of their human rights.
Since 2010 a working group of senior judges had investigated how it might be possible for children to be heard in court cases. Liberal Democrat Simon Hughes, who was then Justice Minister, promised to change government policy. But earlier this year the Ministry of Justice admitted that the plan had been shelved.
In a recent interview with the BBC’s Today programme on Radio 4, Lord Justice Jackson discussed allowing some children to meet the judge. He was clear that it would not be suitable for all children. Indeed, all cases involving children have focused always on the child, and if meeting the judge would be harmful, it should not happen: