EU Charter of fundamental rights and children
Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union is to go on European Union ‘exit day’: ie the day that EU withdrawal finally happens and whatever other terms – or not – are negotiated by the politicians. Clause 5(4) of that the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill says: ‘(4) The Charter of Fundamental Rights is not part of domestic law on or after exit day’. That means the EU Charter no longer be part of English law once ‘exit day’ has happened.
So what has that got to do with children law? For children themselves the EU Charter – though hesitatingly applied by judges and family lawyers – means a lot. That is because Art 24 of the Charter says that ‘in all matters which concern them’ children are entitled to ‘express their views freely’. As relevant here Art 24 says:
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.
2 In all actions relating to children, whether taken by public authorities or private institutions, the child’s best interests must be a primary consideration….
As I will show, I do not think the statute law which English judges apply goes as far as that; though judge-made law – perhaps, and as explained below – will incorporate the equivalent of Art 24 into English law. Before I move on, however, I must also introduce United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child 1989. This is an extensive set of aims for rights of a child to which UK is a signatory; but it is not enforceable in English courts. It does not have the force of law which – while it lasts – the Charter has.
‘Procedural rules of national law’ and UN Convention
The UN Convention Art 12 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.
Even if it were enforceable in English law, UN Convention does not go as far as the Charter. Most important the views of a child – ‘opportunity to be heard’ – are of use under Art 12 only so far as a country’s ‘procedural rules’ apply. That is a get-out provision for a Government. A country has only to say, we don’t have appropriate ‘procedural rules’; and that can a child having any right to be heard. And – surely a matter of shame for English family lawyers? – it must be said that the English ‘procedural rules’ are sufficiently muddled (see eg Children Act 1989 ss 10(8) and 41 and Family Procedure Rules 2010 Pt 16) and indistinct, that it may be possible to say to a child that, as English law stands, there are no procedural rules by which a child may be heard; or am I being too harsh? That must be reviewed on another occasion.
The question which this article addresses is: how far will the spirit of Art 24 remain part of the common law – ie part of English law and to be applied by English judges – for children and in proceedings about them?
The importance of Art 24 is emphasised by Brussels IIA (Council Regulation (EC) No 2201/2003 of 27 November 2003 Concerning Jurisdiction… in Matters of Parental Responsibility ), which will also go on exit day, unless all EU family courts can come to an agreement by then – hardly likely, I fear – as to it future. Within Brussels IIA, its recital (33) says of Art 24 within the Regulation:
(33) This Regulation recognises the fundamental rights and observes the principles of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union. In particular, it seeks to ensure respect for the fundamental rights of the child as set out in Article 24 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union…
And then Art 24? Children ‘may express their views freely’. Will this passage survive EU withdrawal; and if it does so how is it to be operated more clearly than has been the case up to now? How will children know if it may apply to them; and how may they take advantage of it: in the sense of being able to say to say to someone? As a child, I have a right (by one means or another: see Lady Hale in Re D (Abduction: Rights of Custody)  UKHL 51,  1 FLR 961 at ) to say what I think about all this and to talk to the judge who is to decide my future.
Art 24 as common law; and ‘a fundamental principle of procedure’
Art 24 was considered by the Court of Appeal in Re D (A Child) (International Recognition)  EWCA Civ 12,  2 FLR 347 Art 24 alongside Children Act 1989 s 1(3)(a) (that in making a decision about a child the court must have in mind the child’s ‘wishes and feelings’ according to their age and understanding). The court was considering the future of a seven year old (David) in the context of Brussels IIA (due to go with EU withdrawal as well). The English court needed to consider whether a Bulgarian return order should be enforced in the UK; and for this a question was, had the Bulgarian court had given David ‘an opportunity to be heard’ (Brussels IIA, Art 23(b)). If they had not, was this ‘in violation of a fundamental principle of procedure’ of the UK?
David had not been given such ‘opportunity’ said Ryder LJ; this was not in accordance with the fundamental procedural principles (s 1(3)(a)) of English courts; so the Bulgarian order would not be enforced here. The Supreme Court gave leave to appeal, but set aside that decision: Re D (A Child) (Supreme Court: Jurisdiction)  UKSC 34,  2 FLR 379,  AC 1117): they had no jurisdiction to hear an appeal under Brussels IIA. The common law remains as set out Ryder LJ’s judgement (and see discussion of this in ‘Children’s Views and Evidence’, David Burrows, Bloomsbury Professional at Ch 4).
There is a respectable argument for saying that the Re D approach applies in all children cases where their views should or can be heard by the court (-). Said Ryder LJ:
 … the rule of 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 s 1(3)(a) of the CA 1989…relates to the weight to be put upon a child’s wishes and feelings, not their participation.
Children’s rights: new statute law, or a Henry VIII power
And that assertion from Ryder LJ is premised on Art 24. So what happens when Art 24 goes? Ryder LJ’s approach remains the common law, even without underpinning from Art 24. Without the clear line set out by the Court of Appeal English children in family proceedings are left only with the permissive approach suggested by s 1(3)(a) and quasi-legislation (albeit endorsed by Family Division judges) set out in Family Justice Council: Guidelines on Judges Meeting Children who are subject to Family Proceedings April 2010  2 FLR 1872 (prepared after Re D (Abduction: Rights of Custody) (above)). This sets out ‘to encourage judges to enable children to feel more involved in proceedings’ which affect them and to ensure judges have understood their wishes and feelings. As can be seen Art 24 is much stronger – that is, pro-child – than that.
As the source of a right, and as previously set out in Art 24 and as confirmed in Re D, Family Justice Council ‘guidelines’ (even as backed by s 1(3)(a)) are a pallid imitation. As a document offered by English law to guarantee my rights if I were a child affected, I would feel insecure; especially if I was watching the EU Charter boat (with Art 24 aboard) sailing back across the Channel. And I would not be confident that – even as far as it goes – the ‘guidelines’ provide the ‘procedural law’ required by UN Convention Art 12.2.
If the common law is not thought to be as expressed by Ryder LJ, I would urge the Ministry of Justice to put the matter beyond doubt, before exit day for the sake of children. Most of the drafting has been done: it’s there in Art 24.
And it needs primary legislation. Rules or a practice direction are not enough. Or could it be set out as an early an early example of a Henry VIII power with the new Minister of Justice performing the role of the Tudor monarch….