Children aged 10 and over caught up in family hearings will be able to tell judges their thoughts and feelings on the cases affecting them, the justice minister has announced.
Simon Hughes said the Ministry of Justice will work with family court judges, the Children and Family Courts Advisory and Support Service (Cafcass) and with young people themselves to implement the change ‘as soon as practically possible’.
The age of 10 was chosen to be consistent with existing policy and practice in this country and is the age of criminal responsibility for young people in England and Wales, the minister said.
The announcement followed calls from young people’s representative group, the Family Justice Young People’s Board (FJYPB), that children have been 'pushed and pulled' through the family justice system with little or no say on what happens to them.
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, he said ‘it is still too often that their views are not heard’.
Hughes said the government will also work to ensure that children have appropriate access to mediators in cases that affect them.
FJYPB member Kitty, age 15 from Leicestershire, said: ‘In my case, I wasn’t kept well informed of developments and decision-making. This caused me to feel isolated, as if there was no one to share my concerns with or listen to my views directly.
‘Once I was able to meet the judge, it was a huge sense of relief. I felt as if my thoughts were being heard and taken into account, by who I understood to be the most influential individual in family court proceedings.’
Deputy chairman of the Magistrates’ Association Malcolm Richardson welcomed the announcement but said: ‘There is a balancing act to be struck to make sure that no child or young person feels pressured into direct involvement, or that it might have a negative outcome.’
He said the minister’s assurances that young people will be signposted to mediation are also welcome, but voiced concerned about the funding implications, given the vast majority of cases do not attract legal aid for the adults.
Claire Wood, international families’ solicitor at Kingsley Napley, said: ‘This government announcement exemplifies a growing move towards recognising children’s voices, giving them a right to be heard in matters affecting their wellbeing.'
Empowering youngsters, she said is ‘compelling’, but added: ‘the extent to which their views are determinative will remain the preserve of a considerably older, more experienced and, probably wiser, judiciary.’