Gov Press release – Voice of the Child: children to be more clearly heard in decisions about their future

Gov Press release – Voice of the Child: children to be more clearly heard in decisions about their future

I have included below a link to a government press release issued today and I have reproduced the press release itself in green italics at the bottom.

These are difficult times for Family Justice. There has been a reduction in the cases going to court about the arrangements for children. The anticipated Mediation boom has not quite happened either.

Does this mean that families are now better able to resolve disputes about the arrangements for their children? Not from what I have seen. Instead problems are going unresolved which usually mean children are losing contact with their parents or one of the parents is placing themselves in a situation which is risky.

In the last couple of weeks there was a case reported in the Court of Appeal where the appeal court judges expressed concerns over is not being a good use of their time to go through basic legal procedure with appellants who did not have solicitors.

It is also the case that the Law Society are supporting the group Rights of Women with a legal challenge to the validity of legal aid rules.

The Children Act already says that when decisions are made by a court about a child the court should take into account the child’s wishes and feelings in light of their age and understanding.

Cafcass is the organisation which is in place to do this already and the court will routinely order reports on a child’s welfare which include obtaining wishes and feelings.

Of course what is happening is that because resources are scarce Cafcass are routinely not being asked to prepare reports where there is not a safeguarding or significant welfare issue. The Child Arrangements Program which is the scheme through which cases between parents are dealt with procedurally has a greater emphasis on referring cases out of court and into mediation. This is not a bad thing.

Like myself there are mediators who are trained to meet with children and to take their views as part of a mediation process. Generally this is something that I try to avoid because it places an expectation with the children that their parents will be able to come to an agreement (which is not always the case) and in most cases what children will say is that they want their mum and dad to get on and they want to be able to enjoy both parents and they want certainty about what is happening with their arrangements. Unless there are older children you don’t really need to bother younger children to find out what is obvious!

So what does this press release mean?

Does it mean that extra resources are going to be pushed into the family justice system? I doubt it

Is it perhaps window-dressing or electioneering?

The family solicitor’s organisation Resolution has its own manifesto for positive change in the family justice system which it will unveil shortly and which needs to be supported.

What is desperately needed that resources needs to be applied to the family justice system so that more cases can be dealt with more efficiently.

Decide for yourself. Read the press release below and follow the link for more detail.

Children will have a greater say in family court cases, Justice Minister Simon Hughes announced 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 divorce or separation – will be able to have their views heard when decisions are made that will affect them.

Speaking to the group of the 24 young people who promote the voices of children and young people in the family justice system, Simon Hughes set out changes to make it easier for children and young people to communicate their views in court proceedings.

These options include meetings, letters or pictures or by way of a third person in addition to their Children and Families Court Advisory and Support Service (Cafcass) 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.

Justice Minister Simon Hughes said:

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. The government believes that the voices of children and young people should be heard when decisions are made that affect them. Under new proposals this will change, and in particular all young people aged 10 and above will have a greater opportunity to have their voice heard.

Nineteen-year-old Bethany Shepherd, a member of the FJYPB has been through the family justice system and said:

The voice of the child is important to me because it is vital to hear a child’s opinion about their case when a decision is made that could ultimately affect them for the rest of their lives.

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. Also Cafcass are 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 today are expected to complement reforms to guidance on judges seeing children which are being considered by a judge-led working group set up by the President of the Family Division, Sir James Munby.

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