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Researching Reform: Children will be seen and heard – now they must be understood

Date:1 AUG 2014
Justice Minister, Simon Hughes’ recent announcement that the voice of the child will feature more prominently in deciding family law cases is to be welcomed, but will the proposed measures be enough to ensure that children are not only heard, but understood?

The Voice of the Child is an exciting and challenging area of family law, but it is also a relatively new concept. Meant to underpin the importance of listening to children’s wishes and feelings as outlined by the Children Act 1989, this element within family law has only really come into its own over the last three years.

Although no longer available to view online, and by all accounts rendered obsolete for reasons not yet clear, the innovative Voice of the Child Sub-Group (which has also quietly disappeared), was largely responsible for starting this movement with their guidelines for judges on talking to children. The 2010 guidelines advocated allowing young people caught up in family proceedings who wished to speak to the presiding judge, to do so. But narrow and cautious as the guidelines were, young people could only speak to their judge if the judge permitted it – and if permission was granted, the only communication allowed was that of the judge telling the child how the family court process worked. There was no allowance for discussing the facts of the case, or, most importantly, how the child felt about them.

Shortly after those guidelines were published, The Voice of the Child Sub-Group collaborated with The Children’s Commissioner and produced a report which was ahead of its time. The report was entitled, ‘Children need a louder voice inside the family justice system’, and was a direct response to the 2011 Family Justice Review. Inside the report, The Children’s Commissioner and the Sub-Group both argued that children wanted adults to really listen to them, and record their wishes and feelings as they expressed them, rather than through an adult filter. Children, it seemed, wanted to have a say in their future, and to be taken seriously.

Very little seemed to take effect after 2011: the Voice of The Child slid back into obscurity, while courts wrestled with delays and dwindling resources and professionals watched on in despair as their workloads grew to unmanageable proportions.
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And then in 2013, Cafcass’ Young People’s Board, which was established in 2006 but remained largely under the radar until now, put together the first Voice of The Child Conference of its kind. The Young People’s Board was designed to help Cafcass stay child focused, and is run by 40 young people who have experienced the family justice system. While the first conference did not make headline news, the second conference in 2014, was more readily noticed, not least of all because Justice Minister Simon Hughes attended, and spoke, at the conference.

There now seems to be something of a renaissance happening for The Voice of The Child. Cafcass is the organisation leading this second wind with their Family Justice Young People’s Board this time round, with the government making a concerted effort to address the needs of children throughout the court process. Unwittingly, that renaissance, small and child-focused as it may be, holds the key to improving the entire system, if we allow it to.

For in order to hear the Voice of the Child properly, and to understand it, all sectors of the system must be able to engage with children in a meaningful way, a way which will allow for a much greater understanding of every child’s circumstances, and by implication acquiring a deeper knowledge of the family dynamics at work. And that can only be a good thing when trying to solve family dilemmas and ensure that children are protected.

So how can the Voice of The Child be heard, and understood? Professional training within fields like social work and mediation, need to be ramped up. Chief Social Worker Isabelle Trowler has already set about creating a gold standard for social work, which aims to ensure that best practice is an accessible concept, as outlined in her Knowledge and Skills Statement. Judges need to be child-friendly and trained to engage with children. Very little training at present is offered although Chair of the Voice of the Child Sub-Group Nick Crichton did hint, back in 2010, of the production of such training videos for our family judges, in an interview.

Transparency needs to be carefully balanced with every child’s right to privacy. In a recent report published 28 July, 11 children interviewed said unanimously that they did not want the media reporting family cases and showed a strong mistrust of the media. Interestingly, they felt that the media would stifle their voice, rather than amplify it. A specially designed task force of reporters who work within the system and remain child focused could be the answer.

The Voice of the Child movement though, is not without its contradictions. The July 2014 report, which was produced by NYAS and the ALC, also claims that the President of the Family Division is not listening to children and that government is still not placing their rights, views and interests on Parliament’s agenda. It also suggests that government should be doing more to scrutinise media reporting inside the courts, as well as ensuring that young people are engaged with when deciding policy decisions that will affect them.

Although very little is clear about how the Voice of the Child will survive the next few months of debate and policy proposals, what we do know is this: the voice of each child is a delicate thing, which needs protecting and amplifying. And that can only be done with vocational professionals who understand and engage with children successfully.

The views expressed by contributing authors are not necessarily those of Family Law or Jordan Publishing and should not be considered as legal advice.