Children are regularly denied their right to speak on their own behalf in court.
7:30PM BST 15 Oct 2011
On the desk where I write is a child’s drawing showing the 11-year-old girl who drew it, imprisoned behind bars with two adults sitting in a room next door labelled “Guards”. Around the roof of the building are the words “Help me”, written 13 times, and in the sky above glowers a black, forbidding sun. This bright, articulate girl, who was taken from her home by social workers a few months ago on what seemed to be an absurdly flimsy pretext, would love to be allowed to come to court to explain to a judge why she wants nothing more than to escape from her prison and return to her loving family. But it seems there is no way she is to be granted her wish.
We hear much these days about human rights and how, for instance, criminals cannot be deported because this would be in breach of their right under the Human Rights Act to enjoy life with their family. We hear rather less about the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which Britain signed up to in 1989. Article 12 guarantees that a child shall be “provided the opportunity to be heard in any judicial or administrative proceedings affecting the child”. We hear little, too, of the landmark ruling of our Supreme Court last year, W (Children) UKSC 12, which explicitly reformulated the law on allowing children “to give live evidence in family proceedings” that affect the child’s future, reversing the previous presumption that it was only in exceptional cases that “a child should be so called”.
Among all the cases I have been following closely in recent months where children have, I believe, been wrongly removed by social workers and courts from loving, responsible parents, four stand out as particularly relevant in this respect. They all centre on children between the ages of 11 and 14 who are intelligent and articulate (I have spoken to two of them by telephone). All were previously happy living with their parents and doing well at school. All are now languishing miserably in foster care, where three have complained about being physically and emotionally maltreated.
In three cases (I don’t know about the fourth, because none of her family has seen her or been allowed to know anything about her for months), the child’s school work has markedly suffered. One bright 14-year-old boy has been placed, very unhappily, in a school for children who are backward or mentally handicapped.
All of these children are ideal candidates to be brought to court to express their wishes about their future. (One girl, I gather, has actually written to the judge stating that it is her “human right” to see him.) Yet none of the adults into whose power these children have been given – social workers, lawyers, guardians, judges – seem disposed to allow them to exercise what both international law and the highest court in the land have laid down is their right.
How has our system of family justice, supposedly dedicated, under the Children Act, to putting children’s interests above everything else, become so corrupted that it cannot allow them rights which, in almost any other context, judges would so happily uphold? (The judiciary prohibited, for instance, the deportation of a man who dragged along and killed a
12-year-old girl he had run over in his car – because of his “right to enjoy family life”.)
When can that girl who cries “Help me, help me”, while her guards look on stony-faced, be released from what she sees as her prison? Why are all these unhappy children, and doubtless many more, being so blatantly denied rights that the law of the land so mockingly claims to grant them?
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