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Amandeep Gill's Analysis: Voice of the child, publicity and child witnesses

Date:18 JUN 2010

Voice of the child, publicity and child witnesses

Amandeep GillDuring the last 5 years increasing importance has been attached to hearing the voice of the child in family law proceedings.  The Family Justice Council have recently published guidance for the judiciary who are prepared to meet with children that are the subject of proceedings.

Last month the Court of Appeal endorsed a decision given by Mrs Justice Black who held that an 8 year old and his 5 year old sibling had reached an age and degree of maturity at which it was appropriate to take account of their views in Hague proceedings (W v W [2010] EWHC 332).

This theme continued at Jordans children law and practice conference earlier this week, when the deputy children's commissioner for England, Sue Berelowitz presented a paper about children's participation and the courts. Research has shown that children are keen to be heard and participate in proceedings but were opposed to press reporting about what they referred to as their "private stuff".

Sue spoke about a young girl who after several failed placement orders was beginning to settle in her current home and school. She was involved in family law proceedings which were reported. Due to a unique set of facts, this led to her identification and horrific bullying at school which included an attempt to set her alight. Her placement broke down and this vulnerable young girl had to be moved and resettled once again.

Given the provisions of the Children Schools & Families Act 2010 I asked the deputy commissioner how these situations can be avoided and whether anonymisation of family judgments would be preferable to press reporting. Sue emphasised that "It is very important to await the outcome of the anonymised pilot schemes and to make an informed decision. We need to address the publicity aspect without compromising children's right to privacy. The open days in courts have been a huge success. There is however a need for more creative solutions".

In her paper the deputy commissioner referred to the judgment of the Supreme Court in Re W (Children) [2010] UKSC 12. I asked her what could be done to support children required to give evidence in concurrent care and criminal proceedings.  "Children who experience traumatic situations are entitled to support under Article 39 UNCRC.  They should be able to access services primarily through the NHS". Sue recognised that "mental health provision for children is patchy around the country" and that there is "a way to go to meet needs across the country to avert storing up problems for the future. It is in society's interest to support children in their recovery".

As a result of the Re W decision, a multi disciplinary committee chaired by Thorpe LJ has been established to review the taking of evidence from child witnesses.  Surely the solution to children having to give evidence in two sets of proceedings and risking identification due to publication of judgments would be the establishment of a combined criminal and care court where anonymised judgments are produced.

Amandeep Gill is a Professional Training PSL at Jordan Publishing.