Partner and Head of Wills & Estate Planning at Andrew & Co Solicitors Helen Newson writes...
Changes to Family Justice System Given Cautious Welcome
A solicitor from Andrew & Co in Lincoln and Newark is welcoming changes to the family justice system which will see children given a greater voice, but says they need to be carefully thought through.
Following calls from the Family Justice Young People’s Board, the government has committed to giving children from the age of 10 the chance to speak to a judge and make clear their views.
During a speech at a conference on Thursday (24th July), Family Justice Minister Simon Hughes said: “Children and young people must by law have their views heard before decisions are made about their future, and where decisions are made that will impact them. At the moment, it is still too often that their views are not heard.
“It seems to me wrong that a 10-year-old in England and Wales is deemed old enough to be criminally responsible yet has no automatic voice in family proceedings in which decisions are being made about them. Children and young people should be involved and be seen to be involved.”
Although children’s feelings are taken into account at the moment, they very rarely have an opportunity to speak to the judge directly.
Julie Bailey from Andrew & Co, who has worked as a specialist family law solicitor for 27 years, explained: “Currently the court appoints the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (Cafcass) to talk to the children and file a report.
“However, the changes mean that for the first time children will have access to judges.
“This could be very effective as unfortunately disputes over the arrangements for children are often about the parents and not about the children. Having the child’s perspective could even stop some cases going to court in the first place.
“It could, however, also put the child in a very difficult position, especially if the parents are present. The child may not feel able to speak freely and in some cases may have been carefully coached by one of the parents.
“In addition, following the withdrawal of legal aid for almost all family cases, an increasing number of parents are representing themselves, which is slowing the legal process down and causing courtroom delays.
“So while I welcome the government’s announcement, further thought needs to be given to how this is going work in practice. It’s important that children have a say on what happens to them but at the moment I can’t see how judges are going to have the time or resources needed to make this work.
“Children’s welfare must be put first during proceedings and we need to ensure that a safe decision is being made about every child’s future.”