Written by Helen Richardson, Policy and Research Officer at the Magistrates’ Association
Earlier this month, I attended a fascinating breakout session at our 2022 annual conference on incorporating children’s voices into private law proceedings. Led by the Nuffield Family Justice Observatory (NFJO), the session opened with moving recordings of children reading first-hand accounts from In Our Shoes—a collection of stories from young people involved in family justice proceedings.
We then heard from Jude Eyre and other NFJO experts in child psychology who explained that evidence shows that not only do children want to be more involved court proceedings, but that being heard also benefits them:
“The more children felt that they had been listened to, the more satisfied they were likely to be with the outcome of proceedings.”
Nonetheless, children still do not directly participate in more than 50 per cent of cases. So, we brainstormed how magistrates—and other court staff—might help remedy this for those who do wish to participate. Suggestions included children:
- writing letters to magistrates
- meeting magistrates
- touring the court and having the court process explained to them
- having child-friendly reasons available to read (either immediately or later in life).
While all these options are intriguing, attendees revealed that many barriers to their realisation exist. For example, some members reported that when children express a desire to participate in proceedings, their cases are often allocated upwards to district judges. Others noted that although child-friendly reasons could be beneficial, court time and resourcing doesn’t allow much scope for taking on this additional task.
The session concluded with consideration of JUSTICE’s recently published recommendations for improving family justice. The report’s authors laudably proposed a presumption of child participation, but attendees felt that required structural and cultural change within the courts, social services and local authorities—as well as the additional resourcing needed to ensure that children can meaningfully engage with decisions made about them in the family court—were unlikely to materialise.
It is clear from a survey we conducted during the session that magistrates are alive to the need to embed the voice of the child in family proceedings. More than three-quarters (88 per cent) agreed that children need to participate more than they currently do. However, it seems there remain many questions about how we get there in a family justice system that is overburdened and often under-resourced.
Our family court committee is working with JUSTICE on their recommendations, and we will continue to seek members’ views about how we can overcome barriers to participation. If you’d like to share any thoughts on this matter, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
And, if you didn’t make to the session, you can catch up here.