Private law rights of children: Part 1

20160418_164836-e1544888626602.jpgA child’s ‘views’ in the family courts

 

How many children know they have rights to ‘express their views freely’ in court proceedings – especially in family courts – where a court is making a decision which affects a child? And if they don’t know, how are they going to find out? Even if they do know about their rights, how do children get their views before the judge? What are the steps they must take to get what they want to say before the court?

 

This first post in a series of three will say a little bit about what rights there are for children. Part 2 will look at procedure for how rights – views – are dealt with as a court process. Part 3 will look at expression of a child’s views, wishes and feelings in practice, and what court procedure rules actually permits.

 

I don’t know what is taught about children’s rights in individual schools. As a family lawyer I have a good idea that children who are the subject of proceedings are told very little about what their rights are. Few judges, I suspect, go on the front foot to comply with the law and to find out themselves what a child’s views are. And I fear, many specialist family lawyers are not sufficiently versed in the intricacies of children law to know what they need to do to help children to apply in private law (Children Act 1989 (CA 1989) Pt 2) proceedings; or to be sure that a child talks to a judge when it is appropriate.

 

Children and Children Act 1989 Pt 2 proceedings

 

Children’s rights are likely to arise in private children proceedings (Children Act 1989 (CA 1989) Pt 2 and especially s 8). This will arise in three sets of circumstance explained in this article:

 

  • A child who wants to make a free-standing application, whether or not with representation (CA 1989 s 10(8); and as did CT in Re CT (below));
  • A child who wants to join in existing proceedings (with or without representation: eg Cambra v Jones (Contempt Proceedings: Child Joined as Party) [2014] EWHC 913 (Fam), [2015] 1 FLR 263, Sir James Munby P); or within existing CA 1989 Pt 2 proceedings (eg between the child’s parents), for the child to proceed alone or represented by the child’s own lawyer (eg Mabon v Mabon (below));
  • A child whose instructions to the child’s instructed solicitor conflict with those of the child’s guardian; and the child wants his or her part in the case to proceed on the child’s instructions (on analogy with FPR 2010 r 16.29(2)(a) for Pt 4 proceedings)

 

This article does not deal with CA 1989 Pt 4 proceedings (care and supervision orders; also called ‘specified proceedings’ (CA 1989 s 41(6)). There a children’s guardian and a solicitor for the child are appointed by the court (CA 1989 s 41(2) and (3)).

 

Many experienced children lawyers have difficulty in unravelling what type of children proceedings are involved in individual cases (eg Black LJ (now Lady Black in the Supreme Court) in Re W (A Child) (Care Proceedings: Child’s Representation) Practice Note [2016] EWCA Civ 1051, [2017] 1 WLR 1027: see Preface to my Children’s Views and Evidence by Bloomsbury Professional, 2017 https://www.bloomsburyprofessional.com/uk/childrens-views-and-evidence-9781526503176/  (and see Chapter 6)).

 

A child’s ‘views to be expressed freely’

 

United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child 1989 Art 12, as relevant to a child’s views on a case, says:

 

1 States Parties shall assure to the child who is capable of forming his or her own views the right to express those views freely in all matters affecting the child, the views of the child being given due weight in accordance with the age and maturity of the child.

2 For this purpose, the child shall in particular be provided the opportunity to be heard in any judicial and administrative proceedings affecting the child, either directly, or through a representative or an appropriate body, in a manner consistent with the procedural rules of national law.

 

Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union (2000/C 364/01) Art 24, on a child’s views, echoes the position on ‘views’: ‘1 Children… may express their views freely. Such views shall be taken into consideration on matters which concern them in accordance with their age and maturity.’

 

In Re D (A Child) (International Recognition) [2016] EWCA Civ 12, [2016] 1 WLR 2469, [2016] 2 FLR 347 (the child was seven) Ryder LJ identified CA 1989 s 1(3)(a) as a ‘fundamental principle’ English law: that is ‘the ascertainable wishes and feelings of the child concerned’ in a case must be considered by a court. This provision said Ryder LJ is ‘mandatory’; though the court has a choice (ie a ‘discretion’) on the extent to which views are taken into account (see [38]).

 

Participation

 

A child is therefore entitled to ‘participate’ in the proceedings which are about her:

 

[44] … The law in England and Wales includes the right of the child to participate in the process that is about him or her. That is the fundamental principle that is reflected in our legislation, our rules and practice directions and our jurisprudence. At its most basic level it involves asking at an early stage in family proceedings whether and how that child is going to be given the opportunity to be heard. The qualification in section 1(3)(a) CA 1989 like that in article 12(1) of the UNCRC 1989 relates to the weight to be put upon a child’s wishes and feelings, not their participation.

 

A child must have his or her views heard, but not necessarily followed. This was explained by Lady Hale of an eight-year old child in Re D (Abduction: Rights of Custody) [2006] UKHL 51, [2007] 1 AC 619 [2007] 1 FLR 961 where she said of D, now aged eight, who did not want to go back to Romania (as described by Lady Hale at [20]-[22]), how should his views be considered:

 

[57]… As any parent who has ever asked a child what he wants for tea knows, there is a large difference between taking account of a child’s views and doing what he wants…. There is now a growing understanding of the importance of listening to the children involved in children’s cases. It is the child, more than anyone else, who will have to live with what the court decides. Those who do listen to children understand that they often have a point of view which is quite distinct from that of the person looking after them. They are quite capable of being moral actors in their own right. Just as the adults may have to do what the court decides whether they like it or not, so may the child. But that is no more a reason for failing to hear what the child has to say than it is for refusing to hear the parents’ views.

 

A principle of ‘universal application’

 

To ensure every child participates in proceedings about that child the court must ask: how is the child to be heard? In Isobel’s case – says the UN – she is entitled to ‘express her views’, but how does she go about getting her views heard by the judge? Ryder LJ helpfully described hearing the child’s views as a ‘fundamental principle of procedure’; but how does that principle operate in practice? In Re D [2006] (above) Lady Hale said:

 

[59] … Children should be heard far more frequently [in Re D it was in Hague proceedings]. The only question is how this should be done. It is plainly not good enough to say that the abducting parent, with whom the child is living, can present the child’s views to the court. If those views coincide with the views of the abducting parent, the court will either assume that they are not authentically the child’s own or give them very little independent weight….

 

Lady Hale considered the ‘three possible ways’ (at [60]) of hearing a child’s views:

 

  • An interview with a CAFCASS officer, who is not only skilled and experienced in talking with children
  • The judge seeing the child
  • Solicitor representation.

 

Of the last Lady Hale said (at [60]):

 

… Only in a few cases will full scale legal representation be necessary. But whenever it seems likely that the child’s views and interests may not be properly presented to the court, and in particular where there are legal arguments which the adult parties are not putting forward, then the child should be separately represented.

 

So, imagine a child aged twelve: Clara. She does not agree in different ways with each of her parents. She does not want to live with her father as is being proposed by him to the court. A court welfare officer is ambivalent as to whether she should stay with her mother or her father. Clara says she wants to live, and spend more time, with her mother. She is content to see her father. On the basis of what Lady Hale says she should be separately represented.

 

Part 2 will consider the child who knows of his or her rights, and what she – Clara – does about claiming them. Part 3 will look at what practical arrangements are made for children and how these fit with the Convention and Charter expression of the rights.

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