Voice of the Child Conference #VOTC2k16

Yesterday was the Family Justice Young People’s Board’s annual conference, the Voice of the Child. Unfortunately even with an early start I missed the very beginning of the conference and walked in not long before a young person, Matthew was telling his story of aspergers.

The young person explained that professionals need to be patient and use appropriate language, it’s all well and good explaining something to a young person but it becomes pointless if they do not understand, just as it is pointless getting annoyed when you are asking questions in a way they cannot comprehend. Some of the other suggestions are, in my opinion, more about common decency such as not talking over them, waiting for them to answer, do what you say you are going to, and treating them age appropriately.

Now Matthew’s story reached a few people in the audience at the conference, but in my mind this is how you should work with any young person. If an adult did not understand what you were saying then you would not start talking to them slowly as if they were a baby, you would not talk over someone telling a story, and you shouldn’t promise to do something you are not going to. In it’s most basic form you should be treating everyone how you would wish to be treated, and just because someone has a disability it does not mean that you treat them any differently.

After a short break it was time for me and my team to present our session ‘The national picture for children and young people in the family court’. Before we spoke a member of the FJYPB spoke about how the number of applications for private and public proceedings have increased year  over year, and how the courts have become more stretched, although Elizabeth Gibby, Deputy Director of Family Justice Policy, did state that judges did want to meet with the young people involved in their cases. It was also revealed that a photograph of them would be provided to the judge so that they can see the young person they are deciding on, and that young people would be shown the judge deciding their case even if they could not meet with them.

As you can probably imagine, when it was our time to step up to the stage we talked about the transparency research we had conducted with Dr Julia Brophy, and our recently released examples of good practice. I will admit I went on a bit of a rant against the media having their own agenda, and BAILII’s disclaimer being of little to no protection for those concerned as the information is still searchable. Although BAILII itself is not indexed by search engines extracts are still published on the likes of Family Law which is.

This judgment was delivered in private. The judge has given leave for this version of the judgment to be published on condition that (irrespective of what is contained in the judgment) in any published version of the judgment the anonymity of the children and members of their family must be strictly preserved. All persons, including representatives of the media, must ensure that this condition is strictly complied with. Failure to do so will be a contempt of court.

We reviewed that identifiers should be avoided at all costs, and that the level of detail of sexual abuse is obtrusive and unnecessary. One of the young people who helped deliver our session asked a few basic questions, such as what did you have for breakfast and what colour socks do you have, to some intrusive ones, such as has your mother stopped drinking and has your dad stopped beating you, in order to demonstrate how these kinds of questions are uncomfortable and often unnecessary for the public at large to know. From speaking to a few people during the lunch break I think our message was well received. We also mentioned how the President, Sir James Munby, has asked us to continue being involved in the evaluation process of what ever guidance he produces and to deliver sessions at a few key conferences for the judiciary [mainly the President’s and Judges’ Conferences].

Our facilitator from the FJYPB then asked participants “how can agencies improve communication with children and young people in the current climate?” before breaking for lunch. (You may be able to make out some of their answers on the linked picture)

After lunch we played a special version of Family Fortunes to wake people up, it also got us to think about what the FJYPB thought on a range of matters such as what is the best way to communicate with young people, what is the most important thing young people worry about during family proceedings, and what is the best way young people think they can be heard during those proceedings.

The next session was somewhat disappointing, yet eye opening, with a question time panel consisting of Jane Robbie [Chief Executive of National Family Mediation], Anthony Douglas [Chief Executive of CAFCASS], Adam Lennon [Head of Family Modernisation and Improvements, HMCTS], Khadija Lewis [Chair – FJYPB Member], HHJ Lesley Newton [Senior Circuit Judge, Designated Family Judge, Manchester County and Family Court], Dr Elizabeth Gibby [Deputy Director of Family Justice Policy, Ministry of Justice], and Albert Heaney [Director of Social Services and Integration, Welsh Government].

The first announcement, from Adam Lennon, was that the Courts and Tribunal Services are investing £1 Bn in updating IT and communication, including their websites to make them easy to navigate and understand. The current websites of HMCTS are managed under the .gov.uk domain meaning that they are centrally managed, although government services tried to make these accessible they still leave a lot to be desired. He also stated that a new website was being tested, and has received feedback from a panel of people with different access needs, meaning that it will hopefully be much improved when the new site goes live.

Dr Elizabeth Gibby stated that the MoJ are planning to deliver direct information to young people through web and mobile platforms, this still does not address the need of young people without internet access or who do not wish to engage through digital means. HHJ Lesley Newton mentioned that engagement with young people is important and should be considered an important step in a case, indeed Lady Hale mentioned the same point in her key note speech at the 2015 ALC conference.

Jane Robbie mentioned that it is difficult for mediation services to engage with young people where one or both of the parents object to their involvement, but should they be able to object to a young person not having a voice in decisions affecting their  lives? Isn’t that a breach of their Article 12 rights? [Yes.]

She also mentioned that it can be difficult to talk to a young person on a one to one basis, in my opinion this demonstrated the need for a young person to have access to an advocate during proceedings in order to ensure that their view is heard. It was stated that a social worker has to fill in a box during court proceedings stating what they think the young person wants, but there is a huge risk that they will be projecting their own views or professional stance, an advocate is independent of such risks and should be engaged. Also the question was raided should young people be able to apply for mediation, this is one way to ensure that they get a voice in proceedings.

Questions were also raised as to whether a child needs to be provided updates to their case, who should do it, how often should they occur, can it be damaging to give them too much information. This goes back to Mattew’s speech, a young person should be engaged in the process, it isn’t a question of Gillick competencies, it is a question of Articles 3, 4, 5, 9, 12, and 13. A Young Person should be made aware of what is happening in relation to them, it  will be down to each individual case as to who is appropriate to give them this information, and how often. Again this is a job which advocates have been doing day-in-day-out, and enforces the need for such an individual to be involved in a case. The information needs to be proportionate and in a way in which the young person understands.

When the panel was asked who has best practice in engaging with young people many of us felt they copped out by saying CAFCASS, the hosts of the conference, it was only Jane Robbie who actually stated that it would depend on the situation and needs of the young person concerned. My answer was obviously NYAS.

A young person also asked the panel why they wasted so much money on consultations rather than using common sense. Not one person gave an answer, they were quite political in their answers, and in the end the young person gave up on getting an actual answer.

Unfortunately because of train scheduling we missed the rest of the conference, but overall I think it was a good experience and that delegates got the message. Talking one-to-one with some of them they were very aware of the issues and wanted to go back to their respective organisations and make changes or improvements.

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Safeguarding, Privacy and Respect for Children and Young People

A while back I took part in a consultation regarding the proposals set forward by Tim Loughton MP, Children’s Minister to allow the media greater access to the family courts, this involved meeting with young people from all across the UK to discuss the potential issues which could ensue and the objections they strongly held. At the moment the consultation document is still confidential so I can not share it with you but the views of the individuals who took part are much along the same lines with great concerns for article 12 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948, that is the right to privacy as in many cases it would be easy to identify a person who’s case may be reported, especially within smaller communities.

The idea the minister had was to provide greater transparency of the family courts in order to help people understand the system and its fairness, generally a good idea, but what about case studies and court reporting, couldn’t these systems be improved as well as more basic information given to families and young people in general rather than private issues becoming matters of public debate and [in many cases] humiliation? Also you have to consider whether the media can be trusted with such power with phone hacking scandals and their tendency to overplay negatives and wash over the positives. The media is an unethical midfield  with immoral practices being used and reports being filed before all the facts are checked.

For anyone who knows me you can probably pick out each of my quotes and say “Yeah, CJ said that”. I share the feeling with my peers that the media should be used with caution and not trusted in its entirety with the lack of fact checking and ability to twist the truth for its own means. In short we do not trust or like the media. Another reason the media should not be allowed access into the courts is that of consent, can they morally publish a picture of a baby, child or young person without their permission if they are even capable of doing it? Adults do not always do what is best for them, and when being dragged through a stressful legal battle their judgement may be clouded by a need for revenge or to vent, among many other reasons.

As you may be aware many family court proceedings are conducted in private where there is no means for the public to view proceedings  due to the right to a private life, so we must ask why the Government deems it suitable for a reporter to observe proceedings and then release details to the public. It may be illegal for them to report whilst proceedings are happening, but the lasting impact on the people concerned can affect all areas of their life and create a stigma on them in their local communities or even further afield.

Should the media be permitted to enter the courts and report on a case involving such personal details, surely this could deter individuals from seeking justice or even running a fair trial with certain facts being omitted to save face or even overplayed to cause a media frenzy in an attempt to find fame, or even infamy. A child or young person should not have to fear their problems being publicized and potentially following them for the rest of their lives, their maturity may far outweigh what the courts currently give them granted for and the stigmatization of the situation they are not responsible for could damage their social and academic life with people shunning or molly coddling them to try and make them ‘feel normal’.

It should also not be for a child or young person to learn about their personal situations through the media, nor for the court to decide what they are or are not told in fear that it may ‘damage’ them. Some individuals are far more capable of coping than they are given credit for, and it was felt during the consultation that they may be better emotionally equip to deal with such stressful situations as being dragged through court than the ‘average’ child.

There is much more in the report I urge you to read through when it is released, fortunately we have been invited to give a presentation at the Association of Lawyers for Children conference (13-15 November 2014) to convey our views and start publicizing the report as much as possible. For more information or to give your views please feel free to comment or get in touch!