FJYPB Voice of the Child Conference 2014
The Family Justice Young People’s Board (FJYPB) recently hosted their 2014 conference, The Voice of the Child. The event was attended by several members of the Board, as well as many adult family justice professionals. Social workers, Cafcass, solicitors, barristers, magistrates, the judiciary, legal advisers, independent reviewing officers and others came together to debate how the voice of the child ought to be made more prominent within the family justice system.
Rt Hon Simon Hughes MP, Minister for State for Justice & Civil Liberties, launched the conference with a welcome address. Drawing from his own personal experience, Mr Hughes set out how he believes that the child’s views should be at the forefront of family justice; with the child’s rights taking further precedence across the justice system as a whole. He praised the Welsh Assembly for recently taking the step of ensuring that all Welsh ministers conduct themselves in a way that accords with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. He endorsed many of the principles proposed by the FJYPB draft National Charter for Child Inclusive Family Justice and said that it was clear that children and young people need to be engaged from the outset of a case, and the system needs to be proactive and reactive to their views. He said that the intention of the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) was to bring family justice in line with the age of criminal responsibility – 10 years old in the UK –making it the norm that children of this age and over have access to the judge tasked with deciding their case and are able to communicate their views to that judge. Children below this age should also be able to express their views directly, if they so wish. Mr Hughes also pointed out that there is a need for children to be included in and have access to family mediation; and said that he intends to start a dialogue with the family mediation service to this end as soon as possible. The Minister concluded by applauding the work of the FJYPB and its help in informing the government about the family justice system. He said that the task of the MoJ was now to listen to issues and concerns in order to try to improve the quality of life for troubled families; to create a supportive environment for young people; and to put systems in place to assist with family breakdown.
The conference moved on with an update from FJYPB members R and A as to the work of the Board since the 2013 conference. The Board have been working on drafting and redrafting – in consultation with other agencies – the National Charter. Board members have been tasked with inspecting all 47 national CAFCASS offices, and happily reported improvements with the service in line with the young people’s suggestions. The FJYPB has been working with HHJ Finnerty (Designated Family Judge of North Yorkshire) to look at the user-friendliness of court buildings and facilities, hoping to create more welcoming and supportive court environments for children to attend. Further work will be done across the country with other DFJ’s in the coming months. FJYPB board members have been involved in pilot schemes for judges meeting with children and young people and have contributed to training the judiciary and CAFCASS in these areas. Inspections have begun at child contact centres, with reports referred by the young people to the National Association of Child Contact Centres (NACCC). The Board hope to carry out a further 33 inspections over the next three years, to improve contact centres as a valuable resource for separated families. The FJYPB and its individual members have been delivering presentations and training events across the country. Board members have also had input into the vulnerable witness working group, recruitment for Cafcass and proposals for increased access to child inclusive mediation.
Delegates were then encouraged to take part in an “ice-breaker” session with their colleagues of a snakes-and-ladders-style game, symbolic of many young people’s experience of the family justice system. As well as a useful exercise for meeting and greeting other delegates, the game brought home just how many setbacks a child can suffer when awaiting the outcome of decisions about his or her future.
The conference then heard from L, the first of several FJYPB members who shared his own experiences of the family justice system. Throughout the day the conference also heard from F, S and K. The young people all had different – and difficult – stories to tell, each having a profound impact on the conference delegates. The Board members all had one thing in common; their desire to affect change to improve the system for children and young people in the future.
FJYPB members presented an update on the current draft of the National Charter for Child Inclusive Family Justice. The Charter was launched at the 2013 conference and now contains 9 draft principles. The President of the Family Division Sir James Munby endorsed the spirit of the Charter, but acknowledges that there are additional amendments to be made to ensure that the Charter can be properly implemented across the system.
Delegates then separated into groups for workshops. Five workshops ran throughout the day: Children and young people’s rights within the family justice system; The power of child participation; How can legal professionals engage with children and young people? Is the Family Court the right solution?; and How have the family justice reforms reflected practice and how has this affected children and young people? The group sessions provided an opportunity for participation and discussion among members.
After lunch a short video interview between two FJYPB members and Lady Hale, Deputy President of the Supreme Court, was shown. Lady Hale spoke of the potential pitfalls to be overcome to ensure that the judiciary receive proper training to speak directly with children, and the likely benefits to both the child and the judge of these direct meetings.
The conference then held a “Question Time”-style panel discussion with David Norgrove, Chair of the Family Justice Board; Andrew Webb, of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services; Greg Watkins, of HMCTS; Anthony Douglas, Chief Executive of Cafcass and sponsor of the FJYPB, and Mr Justice Stephen Cobb fielding questions from delegates. The panel members have already been at the forefront of recent family justice modernisation reforms and the key message given is that further work needs to be done by all to continue the process going forward with greater emphasis on the involvement of the child.
After a second workshop session and further personal stories from the FJYPB members, Anthony Douglas made the first closing address. He praised the FJYPB members for their contribution to family justice and expressed his personal pride at seeing the achievements of many of the members over the years. He made a presentation to two retiring board members. He reiterated the importance of the voice of the child being heard and said that what is clear is that young people want to be kept informed of the decisions being made about their futures.
The final closing address was from Sir James Munby, President of the Family Division. He paid tribute to the FJYPB, its members and the invaluable work they are doing. He spoke about a working party he has established to revisit the guidance on judges seeing children in court, and children giving evidence. Although he could give no firm timescales for this ongoing piece of work, he hopes to have a document available for consultation before the end of the year. The President also gave his support for the draft National Charter, but said that further work was needed to ensure that the Charter could be implemented in a practical way across the profession. The President said that children need to be more visible in court and believes that in the future we will look back and question how we ever had a family justice system that did not directly involve the child.