The Children and Family Court Advisory Support Service (Cafcass) have recently reported that more than 100,000 children were involved in court proceedings in the past year.
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:
“You want to make sure that the child leaves the room feeling better than they went in,” he said.
“…that the child or young person feels better for knowing who is making decisions about their future.
“And so, therefore, you have to think carefully about what the conversation should touch upon – sometimes what it should not touch upon – and prepare yourself properly for a meeting of that kind.”
Discussions amongst senior judges have resumed and it is hoped that developments will follow.
All of our family solicitors are highly experienced in dealing with Children Act proceedings. If you feel that you require further legal advice with a situation relating to children, Pinney Talfourd offers a free initial consultation where such matters can be discussed with your solicitor. Please contact our Family Law department on 01708 229444 or email us using the form to the right to arrange a free initial consultation.This article was written by Sebastian Burrows, Partner in the Family Law department at Pinney Talfourd LLP Solicitors. The contents of this article are for the purposes of general awareness only. They do not purport to constitute legal or professional advice. Specific legal advice should be taken on each individual matter. This article is based on the law as of November 2017.