District Judge Nicholas Crichton on the OCC’s Consultation | Social Institutions | Society

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  An interview with Judge Crichton on the recent consultation and what it means to him.
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  Natasha Phillips has asked me to comment upon a paper recently published by the Office of the Children’s Commissioner relating to children’s experiences in the Family Court. The paper was provided at the request of the Voice of the Child sub-group of the Family Justice Council which I chair.Before I answer these specific questions I would make some preliminary points. Itmay be that some of the views that I express are my own personal views, but by andlarge I believe that they are held by the members of the group.Everyone will be, or should be, aware of Article 12 of the UNCRC which requires that children’s views about matters affecting them should be heard, respected and taken seriously. Children need to know that they have really been heard. That is notthe same as getting what they want. Family courts need to ensure that they are able to hear children’s views and to take them into consideration. In cases where they areunable to make the decision that the child wants, they need to be able to explain to thechild why they cannot do as he or she wishes.Too often I have heard young people in their late teens or early twenties who aredistressed because they feel that their views were not listened to in court casesinvolving them when they were younger. Sometimes there may be justification fortheir distress. Sometimes it may just be a question of perception, but perception is important. It is a question of developing a child’s trust in the process.   Children’s views should be communicated to the court exactly as they express themand not as a professional might like to interpret them. For this reason I believe thatchildren should be given the opportunity to meet with the judge if they want to do so,but at the same time it should be explained that it is perfectly all right to say that theydo not wish to do so . It is a child’s prime (indeed primal) need to remain withinhis/her family, or to keep in touch with their siblings. Courts have to make extremelydifficult decisions which can cr eate extreme upheaval in a child’s life. The child is the expert in his/her own life, and should be given the opportunity to be heard. Thatdoes not mean that he/she should dictate, but they should be respected and heard. I turn to Miss Phillips’ spec ific questions  –    1.   The Office of the Children’s Commissioner has recently published acontroversial consultation which focuses on children’s experiences in the family courts and which has also been submitted to the Family Justice Review for theirconsideration. The report itself though was requested by the Voice of the ChildSub-Group, of which you are the Chair. Why did you decide to request thereport? The Voice of the Child Sub-Group was anxious to produce a response to theinterim report of the Family Justice Review. We are, as our title indicates,very committed to hearing the voices of children. I am not sure why the OCC  paper is referred to as ‘controversial’. 2.   The consultation itself involved 35 children, of whom the youngest questionedwas three years old. Did you experience any resistance to the idea of involvingnot just children in research but very young children, too?   We left it to the OCC to decide how to conduct the consultation. I am askedwhether there was any resistance to involving children, and very youngchildren. There was no resistance, and I would not expect there to have been.Children, however young, are individuals in their own right, and we have aduty to listen to what they have to say. Why would the OCC and the courts notlisten to what a 3 year old has to say? I repeat that is not the same thing asmaking the decision they want us to make. 3.   The quotes from the children in the report suggest that the participants werevery vocal and keen to offer feedback. How were children found in order toinvite them to take part in the consultation? It was left to the OCC to find the children who took part. It is my experiencethat children are almost always very vocal and keen to participate. 4.   The report contains some ground-breaking proposals, like the need to ensure the fulfilment of the child’s right to a voice under Article 12 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. This would require professionals working withchildren inside the system to be trained to much higher standards. It is earlydays yet, but do you have any initial thoughts on how that standard might beachieved? I have already addressed the issue of Article 12. I do believe thatprofessionals working with children should be well trained. The Voice of theChild sub-group is pressing for more specific training of Judges. 5.   Another fascinating outcome of the consultation relates to children asking thattheir wishes and feelings be recorded verbatim, rather than being translated byadults relaying these messages. What are your thoughts on this request? I believe it essential that children’s wishes and feeli ngs should be recordedverbatim. 6.   On a personal note, looking at the views children in the consultation wanted toshare, which sentiments if any, surprised you the most? I have read all the sentiments expressed by children. I am not surprised by anyof them. As might be expected some reveal a lack of understanding of theprocess. I am concerned that some children felt that they were marginalised orlied to. All the things the children have said I have heard before, and theydemonstrate the importance of hearing what they have to say. 7.   The report had only been out for one day when Researching Reform alreadynoticed some concern in relation to its content: there are professionals inside thesystem who are worried that the consultation may lead to children being giventoo much responsibility in relation to the outcome of cases involving them and  ultimately overpowering the voices of their parents in the decision-makingprocess. What would you say to these professionals? There is a difficult balance to strike. It is important that children should not begiven too much responsibility within the process. Personally when I seechildren at my court the first thing I do is explain to them that a Judge has anumber of things to weigh in the balance (the welfare checklist), and thatwhile their wishes and feelings are extremely important to me, and while I willgive them serious consideration, I may not be able to make the decision thatthe child wants to me make, and I explain to them that the decision is mine,not theirs. 8.   There is a much deeper cultural question at the heart of the consultation whichrevolves around how we view children in Britain; do you think there is a need tocouple a change in court culture with a change in government culture, so thatdecisions in the long-term remain child-friendly? Yes  –  I firmly believe that there needs to be a change in court culture. CafcassOfficers should routinely discuss with children, probably from the age of 5 or6, whether or not they would wish to meet with the Judge, explaining that it isperfectly all right to say that they do not. We need to become more childfriendly. 9.   You have said in the past that there is no grand master plan for policy andlegislation relating to children in the family courts, but there is of course a desireto improve things for them. What will be the next step for the consultation? It is difficult to discuss what might be the next step. We have to await thefinal report of the Family Justices Review. 10.   The Voice of the Child Sub-Group has been responsible for producing some of the most innovative guidelines for children in the last two years. Does the Group have any plans for the future? It is the role of the Voice of the Child sub-group to provide a child-focusedresponse to proposals, initiatives, and legislation. At the present time we areworking with the Tribunal Service Immigration and Asylum Chamber to assistin a better working relationship between the Family Justice System and theTSIAC to ensure a greater understanding of the plight of children caught up inimmigration difficulties. Our next task is to tackle the problem of hearingchildr en’s voices in the very difficult area of private law. The Government is anxious for more cases to be resolved by mediation. More and more parentsare unrepresented. Cafcass reports are sought in a minority of the cases whichdo get to court. There is a serious issue to be addressed if we are to complywith Article 12.
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