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Children will be seen and heard in Family Courts

Date:29 JUL 2014
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Children will be given a greater voice in the family justice system so they can tell judges how they feel and what they think about the family disputes they are involved in.

The government has made the commitment that from the age of 10, children and young people involved in all family court hearings in England and Wales will have access to judges to make their views and feelings known.

The announcement was made following calls from young peoples representative group, the Family Justice Young People’s Board, that for too long children have been pushed and pulled through the family justice system with little or no say on what happens to them.

Speaking at the Family Justice Young People's Board, 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.

I therefore want to announce that it is the intention of the Ministry of Justice, and therefore the UK Government, that we move as soon as is practical to apply in all our family justice proceedings in England and Wales where children and young people are concerned the policy that it will be the normal practice, the norm, that, from the age of 10, children and young people involved in public or private law family justice proceedings before the courts will have access to the judge, in an appropriate way which reflects their feelings and wishes to make clear their views as to what is the best resolution of the family dispute in their interest. Children and young people of 10 and over will therefore be given the chance to make clear their views in person or if preferred in another way.

Our commitment to giving children the chance to speak to a judge and make clear their views means children will not only be seen in family courts but they will have their own voice heard. This will put them firmly at the heart of the Family Justice System.'
The government will also work with the mediator sector so that children have appropriate access to mediators in cases which affect them.

Commenting on the Government's proposals, NFM Chief Executive Jane Robey said:

'Over 30 years on, we’re delighted the Government now pledges to take a number of steps to ensure the child can shape his or her own future at times of family breakdown.

Our experience shows that hearing the child’s voice can shift parents’ attention away from bitterness they feel about each other towards placing the interests of the child as “Page 1, Line 1” of all future plans.

The impact of the child’s voice in the mediation and court room setting can literally be life-changing.

As the founders of child inclusive mediation, and the nationwide organisation that has pioneered and evolved child-inclusive mediation we look forward to being involved in the important work that lies ahead.'
Resolution's Chair Jo Edwards added:

'We welcome the Minister's commitment to giving children a greater voice in the family justice system. Resolution members work day in, day out, to help separating parents work to put the needs of their children front and centre - this is at the heart of our Code of Practice.

Whether it's through Resolution's government-funded Family Matters pilots, or our training for mediators so they can involve children in the process - our members are committed to ensuring that children come first. So anything the government can do to support this is to be welcomed.

Sadly, with fewer parents able to access legal support as a result of the cuts to legal aid, and publicly-funded mediation numbers on the decline, there is a risk that the increased pressure on the family courts could undermine this commitment.

We look forward to working with the Minister and others in government to help them achieve their aim, and our members will continue to support separating parents in minimising the conflict between them and, in turn, reduce the impact of separation on children.'
The age of 10 has been used to be consistent with other existing policy and practice in this country. It is the age of criminal responsibility for young people in England and Wales.

The changes that will effect public and private law cases will be implemented as soon as is practically possible.

The Ministry of Justice will be working with the Family Court judges, with the Children and Family Courts Advisory and Support Service and most importantly with young people themselves to implement this change.

In his closing address at the Family Justice Young People's Board conference, Sir James Munby, President of the Family Division, expressed his support for the government initiative. He said that the newly announced government policy not only places children at the centre of the family justice system, it also gives them a greater voice to ensure their views and feelings are heard. 'Anybody who doubts the importance of this has only to listen to some of today's presentations.'

He said that the Children and Vulnerable Witnesses Working Group chaired by Hayden J and Russell J has been tasked with looking at the related issues of children meeting judges and children giving evidence in family proceedings, which feed into the wider issue of how family courts deal with vulnerable witnesses. The Group will look at all these issues holistically, revisiting Guidelines for Judges Meeting Children who are Subject to Family Proceedings [2010] 2 FLR 1872 and Guidelines on Children Giving Evidence in Family Proceedings [2012] Fam Law 79. He said, 'Joined up debate about all this is needed and I hope to have something for public consultation well before the end of the year.'