Children at the heart of family cases in England and Wales should be able to talk in private to judges, according to a senior member of the judiciary.
More than 100,000 children were involved in family court cases over the past year, according to the guardian service Cafcass, with some involving bitter fights between their parents or between their families and local authorities.
Yet they do not give evidence directly, nor routinely meet the judges hearing their cases. Instead, Cafcass asks them about their wishes and feelings and reports to the court.
Lord Justice Jackson, a Court of Appeal judge, has called for a change to the law. However, he told the [ital] Today programme on BBC Radio 4 yesterday that any contact between a judge and a child would have to be carefully planned. “You want to make sure that the child leaves the room feeling better than they went in. That the child or young person feels better for knowing who is making decisions about their future,” he said.
“And so therefore you have to think carefully about what the conversation should touch upon, sometimes what it should not touch upon, and prepare yourself properly for a meeting of that kind.”
Lawyers also questioned whether such contact should be automatic, and whether it should be confined to judges despite many family rulings being made by magistrates.
Scott Halliday, a solicitor with Irwin Mitchell’s family law team, said: “It is important that children feel they are a part of the process and that their wishes and feelings are heard in proceedings between parents, where sadly the best interests of the child can become lost amidst other concerns such as divorce proceedings and financial matters. Emotions often run high and in some situations parents see the court as an arena of winners and losers.”
He added: “For some children, meeting with a judge will be invaluable so that the child feels their views have been seriously considered and heard in the proceedings.”
However, he said that the issue was complex because many children proceedings were heard by the magistrates’ court, “and there are as yet no robust proposals as to whether children should meet with a bench of magistrates”.
He added: “In the courts, children should be front and centre, and their wishes and feelings taken into account. Any reform in the law, however, needs to take account of the age of the child, the context of each case and address broader issues around which section of the judiciary — magistrates or judges — hears such cases.”
The Ministry of Justice said in a statement that “protecting children and the vulnerable” was at the heart of the family justice reforms and it would be discussing proposals with senior judges in coming weeks.