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Children’s rights to have their voices heard in Court

Despite some recent changes, there are still issues surrounding children’s rights to have their say in family law courts. I recently spoke with a 14 year old girl who was the subject of family law proceedings before the District Court. The application concerned parentage and access. Mary – not her real name – was adamant that she wanted her views to be heard by the Judge, and when I spoke privately with her, she was incredibly reasoned in both her understanding of the situation, and in her views. She was, without a shadow of a doubt, capable of forming her own opinion and expressing what she believed to be the best outcome for her.

And yet I had concerns…. My concerns were not about her ability to express her views. Nor were they about whether the court would hear her views – because under the Child and Family relationship Act 2015, courts are obliged to hear children.  My concerns were more about how I could protect her from a system and structure that is anything but child/young person friendly. To bring her into the court would involve her waiting among the constantly growing number of adults outside the family court, each waiting for their cases. It would involve her witnessing the usual to and fro of negotiation with solicitors, and being present in what can be a very oppressive and stifling atmosphere. My only way to shield Mary from this was to offer her a compromise situation, where she would write a letter using her own words and language, which I would present to the Judge. (Mary was very clear that if the Judge didn’t agree with her, then she would come into the court to be heard).

Thankfully the Judge in court that day is a Judge who is open to hearing children’s views and was concerned enough to accept and read her letter without the need for her to come into the court directly. And thankfully, for Mary, her views prevailed and a decision was made which accepted her wishes, based around what was in the court’s view, in her best interest.

What again struck me about this situation is the absolutely awful physical structure and system which all families face in relationship breakdown situations, and how much worse this structure is when seen through the eyes of a child. We need change within our courts, including adequate training of judges, and the availability of child professional court staff. Such changes cannot come quickly enough if we are to respect and support families, and the new right of children to be heard.

For further information or advice on children’s rights and family law, you can call us on 0402 24370 or email: info@dmburke.ie

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