Speech by Lord Justice Wilson: A child’s right to understand – a judge’s responsibility to explain

Lord Justice Wilson, speaking at the Association of Lawyers for Children’s Hershman/Levy Memorial Lecture, will call for increased focus on a child’s right to understand court proceedings they are involved in.

In his address, Lord Justice Wilson will examine the role played by the different parties in family court proceedings. And how important efforts to ensure a child’s voice is heard in court have obscured the importance of ensuring children understand what is happening in court and why.

The NSPCC, in their 2003 survey “Your Shout!”, found that out of the 166 children questioned 37 per cent said that no one had explained to them what was happening. How can a child express their views and wishes for the future without an understanding of the proceedings? In any event they have a right to know what is going on.

Lord Justice Wilson states: “We must never underrate the intelligence of children who are central to these proceedings. We must never ignore the profound strain they are under while they await what, for many, will be the most important decision of their lives.”

Children involved in court proceedings will naturally ask themselves like: “Will there be a jury? Will Mum and Dad go to prison? Will I ever see them again? Will it be my fault? Have I said the right thing? Will I have to live with this guardian who came to see me? Will I be taken into care? Will anyone have me? Will they split me from my sister? Why can’t my nan adopt me?”

The Judge adds: “We must do all we can to ensure the children’s wilder fears are allayed.”

The basic issues a child has a right to understand include:

  • issues raised in the proceedings
  • the manner and time-scale of the proceedings
  • the different roles of the participants in the proceedings
  • the crucial importance of their welfare in the court’s decision and the account which it will take of their own wishes.

Lord Justice Wilson argues that the guardian or reporter is best placed to collect for the court the child’s wishes for the future. However at the end of a case the judge should always ensure that there is a suitable person to tell the child objectively about the decision and the reasons for it; and more often than he may have previously realised, the judge should undertake that task himself.

Sir Nicholas states that; “As we judges more frequently see children face-to-face, we must leave our pomposities in our wig boxes; file away our verbal conceits; take time; not patronise; and, above all, never mislead.”

Note for Editors

  1. Sir Nicholas Wilson is giving his speech, “The Ears of the Child in Family Proceedings” at the Association of Lawyers for Children’s Hershman / Levy memorial lecture on 28 June 2007 at 6pm in memory of David Hershman QC and Allan Levy QC.
  2. The speech will be delivered at The Keyworth Centre, London South Bank University. It will be followed by a question and answer session with a panel of experts and the presentation of the Hershman award for the Outstanding Newcomer in the Field of Child Law.
  3. For further information regarding this event please email Karen Goldthorpe or telephone 020 8224 7071.
  4. The 1,200 members of the Association of Lawyers for Children comprise an organisation that exists to ensure the law relating to children and the family justice system which applies that law evolve in a manner which guarantees effective access to justice for children and young people.
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