How real are a child’s rights to be heard (2)?

A version of with references


A child’s rights to express a view


UN Convention on the Rights of the Child 1989 Art 12 states that signatories must give children who are capable of forming their own views ‘the right to express those views’. A child must be given an opportunity to do this in ‘all matters affecting the child’ either through ‘a representative or an appropriate body’. Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union (2000/C 364/01) Art 24.1 says much the same thing.


This article asks how these rights are recognised in English law. The short answer is hardly at all; or not in any real way if the child does not find out about that child’s rights. If the child does find out or – in court proceedings – someone tells the child, it is very much a matter for the individual judge whether the child manages to express a view. As English law – as opposed to international rights laws – now stands, the right to express a view is not anywhere near as clear as Art 12 implies.


If a child wishes to express a view on the case and finds out about that right, the law on how to do so is a mess (described by one Court of Appeal judge as of ‘complexity’ Re W (A Child) (Care Proceedings: Child’s Representation) Practice Note [2016] EWCA Civ 1051, [2017] 1 WLR 1027 at §[18]); and mostly dotted around Children Act 1989 (CA 1989) and Family Procedure Rules 2010 (FPR 2010) Pt 16. And if a child wants legal aid, different rules and definitions apply so as to make the law more confusing still.


This is a truly disturbing state of affairs, given that – as the rules are drafted – it is intended that a child should be able to make her or his own application (FPR 2010 r 16.6); and yet experienced family lawyers (as the Re W case (above) shows) can be perplexed by the law.


UN Convention rights


The UN Convention Art 12 says the following:


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.


The EU Charter at Art 24.1 says that ‘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.’


As can be seen, both Articles place a positive duty on states to take children’s views into consideration; and to take steps to ensure this is done. So how is this dealt with in English courts where a child is of ‘age and maturity’ (or Gillick-competent, after the House of Lords case of Gillick v West Norfolk and Wisbech AHA [1985] UKHL 7, [1986] 1 AC 112, [1986] 1 FLR 224, which said that in matters of confidentiality and views a child of ‘intelligence and understanding’ must be listened to)? The legal term ‘child’ is used here as of anyone under 18 (CA 1989 s 105(1)); though the extent to which that ‘child’s’ views are considered will depend on the child’s maturity and the issue with which the court is concerned.


Mature child in court proceedings


This article is concerned with children in court proceedings, which are of five main types:


  • between a child’s family and a local authority who asks the court to find that the child is suffering ‘significant harm’ (care or ‘public law’ proceedings: CA 1989 Pts 4 and 5);
  • between a child’s parents (eg as to with which parent a child is to live or how much contact each parent is to have) (‘private law’ proceedings: CA 1989 s 8);
  • where a child wishes to make the child’s own private law application (CA 1989 s 10(8));
  • where a child wishes to be joined as a party in existing private law proceedings and to have something to say to the court; and
  • proceedings where a child has been brought to the United Kingdom by a parent and the other says the child has been abducted.


Each of these types of case has different court rules and legal aid definitions (legal aid will be left till a later article).


(1)        Public law proceedings


Mostly application of the rules in public law proceedings is quite clear. The child has a children’s guardian (CA 1989 s 41) and automatic legal aid. The court appoints a solicitor (or the mature child choses one: CA 1989 s 41(3)(a)). If the child disagrees with the view of the children’s guardian, she or he instructs the solicitor direct. The solicitor must act on the child’s instructions (FPR 2010 r 16.29(2)). Even that is not always clear to judges and lawyers as the Re W case (above showed). And I think the Court of Appeal in that case got the distinction between ‘specified proceedings’ (in Children Act 1989 s 41) and ‘special Children Act 1989 cases’ and ‘public law children cases’ for legal aid muddled up (see separate article).


(2)        Private law proceedings: parents’ application


Where one parent applies to a court for an order (a child arrangements order) for their child, and that child is of ‘age and understanding’ (which the Court of Appeal has said could be as young as 7: Re D (A Child) (International Recognition) [2016] EWCA Civ 12, [2016] 1 WLR 2469, [2016] 2 FLR 347) that child has rights under Arts 12 and 24.1; yet in practice it is a matter of hit-or-miss as to whether the court (the judge or someone else in the court administration) tells the child about this. It is likely only to arise if there is a contest, and the court appoints a court officer (‘CAFCASS’) to see the child and report to the court.


Yet, as can be seen from Art 12 (above), the child has a right ‘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’. This is not a matter for the judge to decide according to whim. Surely it means that in every case a child’s maturity must be assessed – even if only quite briefly – and that child be asked if they want to express a view? That does not mean the view will necessarily be followed (Re D (Abduction: Rights of Custody) [2006] UKHL 51, [2007] 1 FLR 961); but it must be a factor included amongst things considered by the court before a decision is made.


(3)        Child’s private law application


A child has the right, if of ‘sufficient understanding’ (CA 1989 s 10(8)) to instruct a lawyer and to make an application on her or his own behalf. This is dealt with under separate court rules, which deal both with how a child deals with the case through a solicitor or alone (FPR 2010 r 16.6). Legal aid may be available to the child in this type of application and the next (4).


(4)        Child joining in proceedings


Similar principles apply where a mature child wishes to be ‘joined’ (FPR 2010 r 12.12(2)(c)), and have a say, in a parents proceedings. A CAFCASS officer may have been appointed but the child may not agree with the officer’s views. In that case, as a highly respected family judge has said, it is essential that a child feels their independent view has been heard by the court (Mabon v Mabon [2005] EWCA Civ 634, [2005] Fam 366, [2005] 2 FLR 1011).


The child may be able to have a lawyer on legal aid (based on the child’s financial circumstances).


(5)        Child abduction proceedings


Special rules, some set out in Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction 1980 (‘Hague Convention’) itself, require the courts by one means or another to take account of a child’s views before making an order. In practice there are specialist CAFCASS officers in London (where these proceedings are heard) who discuss a child’s views with her or him.


The child may be formally joined in the parents’ proceedings (and if so have a solicitor on legal aid); though separate joining in the proceedings by no means guaranteed.


Court procedure


Court procedure varies for each of the above categories. There is no clear definition of when or how a child’s views shall be considered. There is no clear definition of when a child must be told what her or his rights are and how this is to be done.


The President of the Family Division set up a working group over three years ago: the Vulnerable Witnesses and Children Working Group. The group has drafted new court rules (now over two years old) to answer some of the concerns in this article. The draft does nothing to clarify the procedures which already operate; nor to sort out the complex legal aid provisions which apply to children.


As far as I know there is no clear document which explains to mature children what their rights are when they or their parents are involved in court proceedings about them. Still less does the working group deal with how it expects children to be informed of their rights under the UN Convention and how children’s maturity should be considered by the court. Only then will the judge know whether a child’s views under Art 12 should be ‘expressed’ to the court; and only then can the judge start to consider how this should be done.

A CHILD’S ‘AGE AND UNDERSTANDING’: a thought or two from Lord Scarman

‘Ascertainable wishes and feelings’: meaning of ‘age and understanding’

There is no statutory definition of ‘age and understanding’. The extent of a child’s maturity will depend on the individual child and on the proceedings in contemplation. In Re S (A Minor) (Independent Representation) [1993] 2 FLR 437 Sir Thomas Bingham MR (at 444H) explained this. Their views must be listened to even if they are not followed (italicised passage below). Baroness Hale explained this in Re D (A Child) [2006] UKHL 51, [2007] 1 FLR 961:

There is 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.

Gillick: the modern common law

The common law on whose ‘rights’ predominate (specifically, as between parent and mature child over consent to medical treatment) remains as defined in Gillick v West Norfolk and Wisbech AHA [1985] UKHL 7, [1986] 1 FLR 224; confirmed by eg R (Axon) v The Secretary of State for Health and anor [2006] EWHC (Admin), [2006] 2 FLR 206 Silber J).

A 16-year old can consent to ‘any surgical, medical or dental treatment’ as if of full age (Family Law Reform Act 1969 s 8(1)). This is clear; but any younger? Statute law is silent. So, said Lord Scarman (at [1986] 1 FLR 224 at 250): ‘It is open [to the House of Lords] to formulate a rule’. Legal principle must try ‘to keep the law abreast of the society in which [the judges] live and work’ (at 248):

If the law should impose upon the process of ‘growing up’ fixed limits where nature knows only a continuous process, the price would be artificiality and a lack of realism in an area where the law must be sensitive to human development and social change…. Unless and until Parliament should think fit to intervene, the courts should establish a principle flexible enough to enable justice to be achieved by its application to the particular circumstances proved by the evidence placed before them.

Of ‘understanding and intelligence’ he said (at 253):

… I would hold that as a matter of law the parental right to determine whether or not their minor child below the age of 16 will have medical treatment terminates if and when the child achieves a sufficient understanding and intelligence to enable him or her to understand fully what is proposed. It will be a question of fact whether a child seeking advice has sufficient understanding of what is involved to give a consent valid in law.


In July 2014 Sir James Munby, President of the Family Division and a working party he had set up, published a form of consultation paper – entitled an ‘interim report’ – on ‘children and vulnerable witnesses’. They allowed two months (half over the summer period) for practitioners to respond. My comments on this consultation process is at

The consultation document can be found at

My response to the consultation follows. The suggested single rule change, I believe, is an inadequate response to the issues raised by the subject.

It is also worth reflecting on the extent to which this would be one of the topics which any forthcoming child sex abuse inquiry should consider.


Interim Report of the Children and Vulnerable Witness Working Group – 31 July 2014[1]


A consultation paper

  • The working group on ‘children and vulnerable witnesses’ is appointed (it is said) by the Judiciary and Tribunals Office. Its authors are described as being ‘set up’ by Sir James Munby P with aims set out in his ‘12th View’ from his chambers (4 June 2014). In what follows their ‘interim report’ will be treated as a consultation document issued by a public authority[2] – namely from the Ministry of Justice. It will be responded to accordingly.
  • Responses are sought by 3 October 2014 at 5 pm. The working group seems to be entrusted with a very important job, which affects people who are particularly ‘vulnerable’ – by definition. It is intended that its job be completed in a three weeks (by the end of October 2014) because the Ministry of Justice demands it. I believe this is unfortunate for reasons which are set out below. It is urged to take considerable care. The President himself (as will be seen below) has speculated that primary legislation may be required. This cannot be done in only a few weeks.

‘Proposals and initial recommendations’

  • Following the group’s one meeting it has put forward a variety of ‘proposals and initial recommendations’ (para 13). Whether or not the term ‘vulnerable witness’ should be used seems to be open (para 9; but see para 13(iii) which seems to close off the point again).
  • The group questions whether its work should ‘focus on reform in public law[3] and on private law cases involving domestic abuse’ (para 10).
  • In summary the initial recommendations are:
  • ‘The reforms’ should apply to all family court cases ‘from the outset’ (para 13(i))
  • There should be a new ‘mandatory[4] rule’ for ‘children and vulnerable witnesses and parties’ with PDs and Guidance to be ‘inserted’ in FPR 2010 as soon as possible (13(ii) and (iv)); and there should be ‘a new Part 4 to the FPR’[5] (13(v)). This is to be drafted by the working group with the Family Justice Council etc (13(xvi)[6]).
  • Paras 13(vi)-(vi) deal with the main content of ‘the rule’
  • Paras 13(vii)-(x) require advocates and litigants in person to identify ‘vulnerable’ parties etc
  • A practice direction for FJC[7] guidance to judges is recommended (13(xi); and the status of judicial discussions which children should be clarified (13(xii)).
  • Special measure should be made for vulnerable witnesses; and ‘the rule’ should contain details as set out in paras 13(xiii) and (xiv).
  • There should be training for judges[8] and advocates (13(xvii)-(xix)) and ‘as part of the (sic) tool-kit’.[9]
  • Responses on these three areas – the initial recommendations, the subjects of the reforms (‘vulnerable witnesses’ or otherwise) and the span or ‘focus’ of the work – as well as on other questions will be the basis of what follows.

‘Protected individuals’: in civil proceedings

  • With what subjects should the proposals concern themselves? There seems to be no reason why parties, witnesses and all relevant others involved in all civil proceedings should not be comprised in the working group’s considerations. There is no clear logic in limiting the work to the family court only. The proposals might helpfully cover any information obtained from protected individuals and in any context, not only in relation to court proceedings (though possible court proceedings must be a criterion for triggering any rule or other legislative changes).
  • Perhaps a more appropriate title for the work of the group might be something like ‘protected individuals’. These individuals would be involved or may be involved in one way or another in civil all proceedings (including, for the avoidance of doubt, family proceedings).
  • It can be seen that the aims of the group – tentatively at some points (see para 13(xv)) – include not only children and ‘vulnerable witnesses’; but also other individuals who may be vulnerable in different ways (eg because of the form of the proceedings (eg domestic abuse or forced marriage)); or because a child welfare informant (as in eg D v National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children [1978] AC 171).
  • The information which is first provided by a protected individual may not necessarily be for use in court proceedings. Every effort should be made to avoid court-based terms such as ‘evidence’, ‘witness’ etc, unless the information provided by the protected individual is specifically provided for, or to be used for, court proceedings.
  • In logic the group should please consider the special position of individuals (who may later become witnesses) who require protection in other circumstances: for example, because of their relationship with one of the parties (eg the parent or child in cases of abuse by a party[10]), because of their capacity (Mental Capacity Act 2005) or because they are child welfare informants.[11]
  • Further the full spectrum of civil proceedings, not just family proceedings, should please be kept in mind throughout: the views of a child may be as important in judicial review proceedings arising from CA 1989 Part 3 (CPR 1998 Part 54), as in connection with a contact dispute between his/her parents or an application to restrain (or permit) publicity in any form of children proceedings (see eg Torbay Borough Council v News Group Newspapers [2003] EWHC 2927, sub nom Re Roddy (A Child)(Identification: Restriction on Publication) [2004] 2 FLR 949 Munby J).

Human rights: rights in all civil courts

  • At all points any public authority – local authority children’s department, health, schools, courts, police etc – must bear in mind their duties under European Convention 1950 and that they must apply Convention principles to what they are doing.[12] In many cases there will be a balance to be drawn between respect for private life (Art 8), and the right to a fair trial (Art 6(1)).
  • This consultation may need to ask, in the case of protected witnesses, whether judges and lawyers put fair trial rights too high: eg as against the right of a protected individual to respect for family and private life (as perhaps in the case of Re A (A Child)[2012] UKSC 60).
  • Do child rights, children welfare and concerns for protected individuals justify special rights in all civil courts? This is probably a separate and wider subject; but it is a dimension of what is under consideration here.
  • Rights, and in particular European Convention 1950 rights, as a distinct aspect of the consultation does not seem to have impacted upon the working group’s discussions. Perhaps training for all involved in working with protected individuals should include a clear training component on this. Such training would include as much clarity as possible on such issues and confidentiality and publicity; rights as to giving information and not; and self-incrimination privilege (where relevant).

Rules or primary legislation

  • The working group is respectfully requested to recall that a rule cannot alter the law; and thus to reflect on the extent to which their reforms seek to amend the law that it must be within the terms of powers delegated to Family Procedure Rules Committee or that primary legislation is required.


Information from protected individuals

  • To what information or evidence is this consultation addressed? Use of terms such as ‘witness’ and ‘evidence’ implies it is uniquely for court proceedings; or as in support of a party to proceedings. This is misleading. The likelihood is that it will not be only for court proceedings that information is gathered in the first instance, especially where it comes from children.
  • The context in which it is ultimately used – by definition and so far as this consultation is concerned – will, of course, be court proceedings.
  • It is therefore necessary to examine (1) what forms of information are involved; (2) from whom that information will come; and (3) then to consider how that information may be employed whether this is in court proceedings or otherwise.

Forms of information

  • Information which is collected from protected individuals, or where they give evidence in court and are entitled to protection, will include:
  • Information which vulnerable individuals (including children) may wish to give to public authority representatives (local authority, schools, police etc), quite separate from court proceedings (at this stage)
  • Information and views which children who are the subject to proceedings may want to provide to the court
  • Evidence which children as parties wish to give to the court
  • Protection for ‘vulnerable’ parties (parents and children who allege abuse by a party, where that party may have a right to cross-examine them)


Protection for whom?

  • The forms of civil proceedings which might involve a protected individual in any conceivable role include:
  • Children who take their own CA 1989 Part 2 proceedings and in their own right (with permission from the court as appropriate[13])
  • Children proceedings where the child is the subject of the case (ie the case is about the child and his/her family): either because parents are seeking an order in respect of the child (Children Act 1989 Part 2 (‘child arrangements’) or Part 4 and 5 (care etc).
  • Children who are accommodated by a local authority (CA 1989 Part 3) and may be involved in eg judicial review proceedings in relation to their care
  • Children who may be called as a witness in proceedings under (1) above
  • Children who may claim financial provision from a parent (CA 1989 Sch 1 para 4)
  • Family proceedings where an adult is to be cross-examined by an (alleged abuser)[14]
  • A child or adult in any civil (including family) proceedings lacks capacity
  • A protected individual (as with X in Re J (A Child) [2014] EWCA Civ 875) is required to give evidence in any of the above proceedings and to be cross-examined or to give evidence in front of an alleged abuser.[15]
  • Rules should please be framed which comprise all civil – ie not just family – proceedings.


Protected parties: in what context

  • If any changes to the law are proposed – whether of primary legislation or of procedural rules (and see paras 13(ii) and (v)[16]) – then before this can be contemplated there must be a review and, so far as possible, a definition of the primary law and the courts proceedings to which procedural changes might apply. Interim rule changes could be introduced in the interim.
  • The involvement of protected parties will span their first involvement either with a public authority; or with the courts where, as the subject of private proceedings, they may wish to – or be asked to – give their views as children of age and understanding. For this section court proceedings only are under consideration.
  • All civil proceedings should be included (though it is only in a small minority of CPR 1998 proceedings that children will be involved). There is no point in having rules only applicable in family proceedings.

Cross-over with criminal proceedings

  • Protocol and good practice model, October 2013: Disclosure of information in cases of alleged child abuse and linked criminal and care directions hearings[17] provides a protocol to link between care proceedings under FPR 2010 and criminal proceedings. In A Local Authority v DG & Ors [2014] EWHC 63 (Fam), Keehan J dealt with a related matter which involved the cross-over between care and criminal proceedings by a Bovale[18] ‘gap’ practice direction.
  • It is surely lazy law-making to leave such a crucial subject to a ‘protocol’ and ‘gap’ directions. Surely it justifies clear primary legislation (where need be) with all necessary delegated legislation – ie court rules, which cover both criminal and care proceedings.

Protected individuals as witnesses

  • Where protected individuals are called as witnesses what protection can they expect from the court? This may include:
  • Special arrangements for their evidence to be given
  • Some form of clear public interest, or other immunity, for individuals who have given information which relates to child protection
  • Protection from cross-examination by an abuser or other hostile litigants in person[19]
  • In appropriate circumstances some form of closed material (or other evidence) procedure may be called for;[20] though this will require primary legislation, on the basis of Lady Hale’s comments in Re A (A Child)[2012] UKSC 60.[21] It is a substantial subject which requires further detailed consideration. It was considered eg in A Chief Constable v YK and Others [2010] EWHC 2438 (Fam) [2011] 1 FLR 1493, Sir Nicholas Wall P.
  • This subject is also considered also under child welfare informants below.


Ways in which information may be obtained and put before the court

  • This section requires consideration of how information is obtained in the first place; and, if it is required as part of court proceedings, how it is deployed in court. In particular the rights and welfare of the particular protected individual must be born in mind.
  • Further in any such consideration of a child who is a protected individual it is likely always to be necessary to balance their welfare rights against any rights to a fair trial pleaded by a party to proceedings.
  • How should the rights of protected individuals generally be balanced against the rights of other involved in court proceedings? Should their rights be the same as those of children?
  • In the case of children: if a balance is required to be struck between their rights and the Convention rights of a party to court proceedings (ie Convention ‘proportionality’), the House of Lords and Supreme Court have said that this must be conducted by measuring ‘the nature of any impact on the child’ (per Lord Steyn in Re S (Identification: Restrictions on Publication) [2004] UKHL 47, [2005] 1 FLR 591 (at para [17]).
  • The interests of the child are as much a primary consideration for the LAA decision-maker as for any other agency (eg the parole board or Home Office) (ZH (Tanzania) v Secretary of State for the Home Department [2011] UKSC 4 at para [33]). The balance must be drawn between respect for the child’s private life (Art 8) and (say) the right of a parent for a fair trial (Art 6). In H(H) v Deputy Prosecutor of the Italian Republic, Genoa (Official Solicitor intervening) [2012] UKSC 25 the primacy of a child’s interest was explained by Lord Kerr:

[144] … It is unquestioned that in each of these cases, the children’s article 8 rights are engaged. As a matter of logical progression, therefore, one must first recognise the interference and then consider whether the interference is justified. This calls for a sequencing of, first, consideration of the importance to be attached to the children’s rights (by obtaining a clear-sighted understanding of their nature), then an assessment of the degree of interference and finally addressing the question whether extradition justifies the interference….

[145] ….no factor must be given greater weight than the interests of the child.

Relaxing of hearsay rules

  • Hearsay rules are already relaxed by Children (Admissibility of Hearsay Evidence) Order 1993 Art 2 in relation to children proceedings.
  • Two immediate questions arise from this:
  • Does the working of this Order need review in relation to children proceedings; and
  • Should its provisions be extended to all proceedings involving protected individuals and their evidence?

Inquisitorial process for protected individuals

  • Is it desirable to have an inquisitorial process (akin to old-fashioned interrogatories) for the evidence of protected individuals; and if so how would that operate? Thus, should a party who wishes to ‘cross-examine’ a protected individual be required, for example, to submit questions through the judge who would then have the power to edit them within terms that would provide a fair trial to the questioner Balanced against the welfare or other rights of the protected individual?
  • The extent to which a judge should see a child is considered in ‘Children who want to provide information’ (below); but it must be born in mind that different rules will be required where a child is a witness of fact (and called by one or other party to give evidence); and where the judge or the parties (including the child) feel it is appropriate for the court (judge or magistrates) to see the child.


Talking to the judge

  • Most of the considerations in the working group’s paper in relation to court proceedings will be in the context of contested court proceedings. In addition there will be many cases where a child ‘of age and understanding’ wishes to speak to the judge; or where the judge may want to be sure that a child’s views have been made clear to the court before a decision is made.
  • A Practice Note of April 2010 – Guidelines for judges meeting children [in] family proceedings[22] – deals with how judges may be able to permit children to feel more involved in their proceedings. The purpose of the Note is described as:

The purpose of these Guidelines is to encourage judges to enable children to feel more involved and connected with proceedings in which important decisions are made in their lives and to give them an opportunity to satisfy themselves that the Judge has understood their wishes and feelings and to understand the nature of the Judge’s task.

  • The Note stresses that the purpose of the meeting is not for the ‘gathering [of] evidence’ by the judge (para 5). This aspect of the guidelines, in particular, was considered by the Court of Appeal in ###.


  • The status of members of the public, family members, neighbours and others provide information to the child protection authorities (police and social workers) is the subject of conflicting House of Lords/Supreme Court decisions. There is no question that police informants have protection. In D v NSPCC[23] the evidence of the informer was said to be covered by public interest immunity.
  • The working group may wish to consider recommendations, which might involve primary legislation, to clarify the position of and protection for those who provide information which helps to protect children. This might include statutory immunity and treatment of the informer’s evidence (eg as hearsay).
  • The conflict between the rights of the informant as seen by the House of Lords in D v NSPCC and by the Supreme Court in Re A [2012] will surely need to be resolved by primary legislation?[24]


Confidentiality and human rights

  • The confidentiality of statements and other information of protected witnesses is, inevitably, tied in with the parallel ‘transparency’ consultation now under way at the urging of Sir James Munby P. This raises immediately the questions of whose confidentiality and in what context? It would surely be sensible to join up or co-ordinate relevant aspects of the two projects?
  • The evidence of protected individuals is inevitable bound up with their confidentiality. This in its turn raises issues in relation to European Convention 1950 Arts 6(1) and 8; and perhaps Art 10. It is not clear from its initial recommendations to what extent the working group have the special issues on confidentiality and protected individuals in mind. It is to be hoped that this will be carefully considered and that their particular rights will be balanced against any Art 6(1) arguments.


  • The extent to which a party to proceedings who wishes to cross-examine a protected person is the other side of the litigants in person coin. Perhaps this can be the subject of recommendations from the working group to Ministry of Justice which would guarantee a degree of public funding where a party otherwise would act in person, and who wishes legitimately to cross-examine a protected individual.
  • This was considered in outline by the President in Q v Q [2014] EWFC 31 (on 6 August 2014), is considered by me in ‘State funding for family proceedings after Q v Q’ in Family Law News;[25] and is the subject of my forthcoming series in Family Law starting in October 2014. That series concludes in December 2014 with suggestions as to how the President’s state funding ideas might work in practice.
  • The working group may be aware that concerns at reductions in legal aid and its effect on cross-examination of protected individuals has surfaced in the broad-sheet press at least once under the headline ‘Domestic violence victims are being forced to face abusers in court ordeal, lawyers warn’[26]. This then leads on to the next subject.


Litigants in person dealing with protected individuals

  • How does the court protect a protected individual who is to be cross-examined by his/her alleged abuser? This is more frequent now that legal aid is increasingly less available for a parent or alleged abuser; though they are someone who is entitled to cross-examine a witness who makes allegations against them as the law now stands.
  • A question the working party will wish to address is how the rights of a protected individual should be balanced against those of an alleged abuser to a fair trial. In a slightly different context this was considered by the Supreme Court in Re A (A Child)[2012] UKSC 60. In that cases Lady Hale considered that each of the parties – the child, the father and the mother – had fair trial rights; and that each of them and X (the child welfare informant) had rights to respect for family life (Art 8). Any rights which X had in relation to not to be subjected to degrading treatment (Art 3) were discounted by the court.
  • How should the rights under Art 6 and 8 be balanced? Lady Hale replied:

[33] …. to order disclosure [of X’s evidence] in this case would undoubtedly be an interference with X’s right to respect for her private life. She revealed what, if true, would be some very private and sensitive information to the authorities in the expectation that it would not be revealed to others. She has acquiesced in its disclosure to her legal advisers and to the court in these proceedings, but that can scarcely amount to a waiver of her rights. She had no choice. Clearly, her rights are in conflict with the rights of every other party to these proceedings. Protecting their rights is a legitimate aim. But the means chosen have to be proportionate. Is there, therefore, some means, short of full disclosure, of protecting their rights?…

[35] The only possible conclusion is that the family life and fair trial rights of all three parties to these proceedings are a sufficient justification for the interference with the privacy rights of X. Put the other way round, X’s privacy rights are not a sufficient justification for the grave compromise of the fair trial and family life rights of the parties which non-disclosure would entail.

[36] It does not follow, however, that X will have to give evidence in person in these proceedings.

  • The right to a fair trial for the family overrode the rights of X. This was not the same as the conclusion in D v NSPCC, and it is not the same basis for a decision as in police informant cases (see eg Marks v Beyfus (1890) 25 QBD 494; Powell & Anor v Chief Constable of North Wales Constabulary (Case No: CCRTI 1999/0904/B1) CA 1999 WL 1142622).

Role of the court in cross-examination

  • In the family court a judge – and presumably, a bench of magistrates – are formally given power to take over examination in chief or cross-examination of a witness ‘in the interests of the party’ seeking to examine. Matrimonial and Family Proceedings Act 1984 s 31G(6) provides as follows:

(6) Where in any proceedings in the family court it appears to the court that any party to the proceedings who is not legally represented is unable to examine or cross-examine a witness effectively, the court is to—

(a) ascertain from that party the matters about which the witness may be able to depose or on which the witness ought to be cross-examined, and

(b) put, or cause to be put, to the witness such questions in the interests of that party as may appear to the court to be proper.

  • Sir James Munby P has considered the operation of s 31G(6) in Q v Q (No 2) [2014] EWFC 31 (see paras [69]-[79] set out below). He discusses this provision but makes no findings. Perhaps the central passage in his discussion is

[75] … does section 31G(6) operate to confer on a judge of the Family Court power to forbid a party who wishes to conduct his own case from examining or cross-examining a witness? Again I have heard no sustained argument, but my inclination is to think that the answer is, no it does not, for principle suggests that such an important right is only to be cut down by express words or necessary implication, and neither is very obviously to be found in section 31G(6): see again General Mediterranean Holdings SA v Patel and Another [2000] 1 WLR 272. As against that, I can see the argument that there may be cases where to expose the alleged victim to cross-examination by the alleged perpetrator might engage the alleged victim’s rights, whether under Article 8 or Article 3, in such a way as to impose on the court an obligation under the 1998 Act to prevent it, so that in such a case section 31G(6) has to be read as giving the court the appropriate power to do so.

  • I respectfully agree; but I do urge the working group to recommend the necessary primary legislation which will protect – in all civil proceedings – the victim from being examined/cross-examined by the perpetrator.
  • The next step will be to consider whether this is to be by the court, or by a ## to the court; and if the latter at whose expense? By what criteria will the judge need to consider appointment?


Effects of European Convention 1950 on reforms

  • A number of the reforms contemplated by the recommendations and the discussion above inevitably involve Convention considerations. In Re X the requirement of a fair trial could be seen working against the interests of an informer. The working group will need to consider whether this strikes the right balance in respect of protected individuals. Can the ‘primacy’ (peer Lord Kerr above) of their interests be said to come above the rights of parties to proceedings to a fair trial?
  • Where a vulnerable individual may be at a disadvantage against one without disabilities, they have a right to a fair trial. Convention jurisprudence is that they must not to be put at a disadvantage in relation to an opponent (de Smith 7-118). This takes the discussion back to legal aid and the second of my articles in Family Law (due for publication in November 2014).

[1] response by 3 October 2014

[2] ie broadly within the terms of the Cabinet office guidance on consultation documents of 5 November 2013

[3] The term used by family lawyers to connote care proceedings; though in this note other areas of ‘public’ or administrative law will require to be considered (eg Children Act 1989 Part 3)

[4] A rule cannot be other than ‘mandatory’?

[5] This proposal is not explained. Part 4, at present, covers the full spectrum of case management in family proceedings

[6] But not, be it noted, with FPRC or any practitioner groups such as Resolution or FLBA, whose practitioner input could prove invaluable; though FPRC, it seems, are expected to rubber-stamp ‘the rule’ change at a meeting ‘at the end of October 2014’ (para 14)

[7] It would be interesting to know what constitutional status the WG accords to the Family Justice Council

[8] And lay justices?

[9] What is a ‘tool-kit’ in the context of practice or training, and where does it derive from in this context?

[10] H v L and R [2006] EWHC 3099 (Fam) [2007] 2 FLR 162 Roderic Wood J, Q v Q (No 2) [2014] EWFC 31, Sir James Munby P

[11] As with X in Re A (A Child) [2012] UKSC 60 and Re J (A Child) [2014] EWCA Civ 875; but see also D v National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children [1978] AC 171, (1977) FLR Rep 181 considered at ** below

[12] Human Rights Act 1998 s 6

[13] FPR 2010 Part 16

[14] See also MFPA 1984 38G(6) and below

[15] This may raise additional questions about whether there should be any special protection, guaranteed by law, for child welfare informants: and below

[16] One ‘mandatory rule change’ seems to be envisaged. As will be seen this is hopelessly inadequate even on the limited reform canvass proposed by the working group

[17] Set out eg in Family Court Practice 2014 at p 2977

[18] Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government v Bovale Ltd and anor [2009] EWCA Civ 171

[19] See eg comments by Roderic Wood J in H v L and R [2006] EWHC 3099 (Fam) [2007] 2 FLR 162 and of Munby P in Q v Q (No2)

[20] See separate notes; though such a procedure was considered and its uses doubted by Lady Hale in the Supreme Court in Re A (see nn below)

[21] [34] It is in this context that it has been suggested that the court might adopt some form of closed material procedure, in which full disclosure was made to a special advocate appointed to protect the parents’ interests, but not to the father himself. It faces two formidable difficulties. The first is that this Court has held that there is no power to adopt such a procedure in ordinary civil proceedings: Al Rawi v Security Service (JUSTICE intervening) [2011] UKSC 34[2012] 1 AC 531. That case can be distinguished on the ground that it was the fair trial rights of the state that were in issue, and the state does not enjoy Convention rights. It is arguable that a greater latitude may be allowed in children cases where the child’s welfare is the court’s paramount concern. But the arguments against making such an inroad into the normal principles of a fair trial remain very powerful. The second difficulty lies in the deficiencies of any closed material procedure in a case such as this. We have arrived at a much better understanding of those difficulties in the course of the control order cases, culminating in Secretary of State for the Home Department v AF (No 3) [2009] UKHL 28[2010] 2 AC 269. The essential requirement of any fair procedure is that the person who stands to lose his rights has an opportunity effectively to challenge the essence of the case against him. There may be cases in which this can be done by offering him a “gist” of the allegations and appointing a special advocate to scrutinise the whole of the material deployed against him. In a case such as this, however, it is not possible effectively to challenge the allegations without knowing where, when and how the abuse is alleged to have taken place. From this information it is inevitable that X’s identity will be revealed. Even if it were theoretically possible to devise some form of closed material procedure, therefore, it would not meet the minimum requirements of a fair hearing in this case.

[22] [2010] 2 FLR 1872, Family Court Practice 2014 p 2933;

[23] D v National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children [1978] AC 171

[24] This subject is considered by me in full in Family Law [2014] February at ‘Disclosure, Privilege and public interest immunity: Public interest immunity’


[26] eg report in Independent of 5 October 2014


Listening to children: their rights

Child support abuse inquiry, significant harm, domestic violence, domestic abuse: what do words such as ‘abuse’ and ‘harm’ mean? I ask mostly in the context of listening to children (though in passing its pre-Beveridgeian legal aid Act the Tory government allowed itself to be enmired in a squalid debate about legal aid for domestic abuse, or the more domestic serious violence: legal aid was limited to the latter).

By what factors do we judge when harm to, or abuse of, a child demands action; and what are the child’s rights to be heard when harm occurs? First, a reminder of the great sound bite from the Cleveland inquiry ‘the child is a person, not an object of concern’. Children must be listened to for themselves not because they are the subject of some charitable exercise.

This followed on from the words of Lord Scarman – a great judge and very human philosopher – in Gillick v West Norfolk and Wisbech AHA [1986] 1 AC 112, [1985] UKHL 7 ( ):

One finds plenty of indications [in the common law] as to the principles governing the law’s approach to parental right and the child’s right to make his or her own decision. Parental rights clearly do exist, and they do not wholly disappear until the age of majority. Parental rights relate to both the person and the property of the child – custody, care, and control of the person and guardianship of the property of the child. But the common law has never treated such rights as sovereign or beyond review and control. Nor has our law ever treated the child as other than a person with capacities and rights recognised by law. The principle of the law, as I shall endeavour to show, is that parental rights are derived from parental duty and exist only so long as they are needed for the protection of the person and property of the child.

That is, parental rights over a child must recede as the child – though still a child – gets older.

The aspirations of Cleveland and Gillick found statutory expression in Children Act 1989. That act specifically said that the ‘wishes and feelings’ of a child of age and understanding must be taken into account (CA 1989 s 1(3)(a)). Another main aim of the Act was to regulate the taking of children into local authority care. A care or supervision order should only be made if a family court considered that the child was suffering, or thought likely to suffer, ‘significant harm’ (CA 1989 s 31(2)).

‘Harm’: the starting point

Meanwhile, what is the meaning of ‘abuse’? Literally it means misuse (or miss-use), a use of something or someone which is outside the norm (ab = Latin for ‘from’). I had a teacher once who told us: ‘You haven’t used a book, till you’ve abused it): ie read it, put pencil notes in the margin and so on. He did not mean to tear up the book, or scribble in pen all over it.

It is a narrow semantic spectrum: ‘abuse’ or ‘harm’. That said, is it not best to start with the minimum concept of ‘harm’ of any sort (ie not ‘significant’ harm) as the relevant terminology for aberrant behaviour towards a child and in the context of when to listen to that child? Abuse of that child may be found to have happened; but any form harm to a child must surely be the minimum for listening? Having listened, the listener must move promptly – and appropriately to the child’s needs, and sensitive to his/her confidentiality – to act to protect and safeguard the child.