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David Hodson on International Family Law: Sixth World Congress on Family Law and Children’s Rights
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Apr 8, 2013, 06:20 AM
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This major family law conference takes place every four years and occurred in Sydney, Australia, 17-20 March 2013. Its leading place in the family law calendar derives from its crucial mix of hard law, black letter practice with multidisciplinary presentations from academics, researchers and others with the fundamental extra ingredient of inspirational talks on wider family law issues especially affecting children across the world. The sixth World Congress was one of the best and is a good portent for its future
Previous World Congresses have taken place in San Francisco, Cape Town, Bath, England, and Canada. One bedrock has been the emphasis on the rights of children and seeking ways in which those rights, recognised by the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, can be made into a practical reality, in part through the law and in part through other means. At the Cape Town conference, a charity, Children's Rights International was formed which is undertaking excellent work in several countries and in various forms. There was a full report at the conference.
One of the primary speakers was Suraya Pakzad, Executive Director of Voice of Women in Afghanistan. An Afghan national from Herat province, she has been working for several years, at huge risk to her life and that of her family, to look after women in Afghanistan. Many women are married at a very young age, sometimes preteens, and have no prospect of education and some suffer domestic violence. She has set up refuges for these girls, areas of safety from violent husbands and other family members, being places where they can also be taught. These refuges, and those who work in them and stay in them, have come under physical attack and there is little support in the male Afghan hierarchy for what she is doing. She receives no funding within Afghanistan and no protection from the regular threats of violence or death. The conference was privileged to see a short video filmed secretly within Afghanistan of this very important work and the needs of these women and children; the other side of the story from the news reports we receive daily.
Her presentation, including an urgent need for about £5,000 to keep open a couple of refuges for another month or so, came on the day that the EU announced the provision of €10 billion for a Mediterranean island of less than 1 million people. The apparently skewed values and priorities was stark.
Another primary speaker was Dr Helen Durham, legal adviser to the Australian Red Cross who spoke about the role of law in the context of war. Whilst the preconception of many would be that there is no role, she explained the international laws which do exist and which are generally although not of course entirely adhered to in some form or another. Specifically she spoke about children and women in war, explaining the realities of children soldiers in various war zones across the world, how they are taken from their families and often totally turned against their families. She spoke about mass rape as a policy of both government and insurgent forces. Yet amongst the grim news there was considerable hope for the good work being done on the front line by Red Cross and Red Crescent both practically and in the influence of law.
One of the areas in which Children's Rights International has been working is in Cambodia. It is only a generation ago that the population of 7 million was decimated in the genocide, directly or indirectly, by about 2 1/2 million people. Many of these were the intelligentsia of the country. How does one set about recreating a country after this sort of event? Specifically where does one find the judges and lawyers to create a justice system, including the protection for the rights of children and women, when all those most likely lawyers have been killed? From what sort of origins does a justice system start again? The conference was privileged to hear from the Cambodia Justice Minister and judges who explained the work of the children's courts.
One theme of the conference was cyber bullying and cyber safety with many presentations from countries around the world, first identifying this problem which affects many children in many countries and in ways which many adults do not understand because of a lack of knowledge of IT and social media and then secondly looking at various ways to tackle and overcome the problem and protect victims of cyber bullying. One of the most impressive sessions was from teenagers themselves talking about the issue; a massive learning curve for many of the delegates.
Amongst these mega issues, there were many presentations of what is more familiar territory to family lawyers. There were two sessions on child relocation. The first was presented by the world's leading researchers on the patterns and trends and costs, financial and emotional and relationship, of relocation applications. The second was presented by leading family lawyers, looking to find practical worldwide solutions to this worldwide issue, perhaps also rectifying an imbalance in some places too far favouring the mother at the cost of the broader well-being of the child.
There was consideration of international adoption issues, international enforcement of child support, international mediation including in the context of child abduction with particular contributions from a number of delegates from Japan, and an examination of the benefits of arbitration in international cases. There was an extremely valuable judicial conference looking at how judges in different countries work out best how to listen to the voice of the child.
Finally in this report, there must be public recognition for Stuart Fowler and Rodney Burr, Sydney lawyers and then judges, who founded the World Congress over 20 years ago. They have worked tirelessly and incredibly successfully over these years to establish the Congress for its diverse mix, as shown in this report, and its ancillary charity, Children's Rights International. It has been an incredible life achievement by them both for which the very many delegates have been the beneficiaries but, even more so, the many children who have benefited directly or indirectly by the inspiration, action, combined academic and practitioner thinking and then the reforms and practical action which has flowed from these Congresses.
He is an English specialist accredited solicitor, mediator, family arbitrator, Deputy District Judge at the Principal Registry of the Family Division, High Court, London and also an Australian qualified solicitor, barrister and mediator. He is a Fellow of the International Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers and chair of the Family Law Review Group of the Centre for Social Justice.