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Listening to children in family law proceedings

At the National Family Law Conference yesterday, there was a presentation from the National Child Commissioner, Megan Mitchell, who was challenging how children can be heard in family law proceedings.

In the early days of the Family Law Act, it was not uncommon for judges to speak to the children in chambers to get an idea of their wishes. In those times the judges were usually grandfatherly looking gents so you can imagine what a nice fireside chat those discussions were.

Today's main method by which children's views are put to the court is through what is called a family report. A family report is where the parties and the children meet with a social worker or psychologist appointed by the court who may also speak with others relevant to the matter like teachers and doctors.

The family report usually makes a recommendation on what would be the arrangements in the best interests of the children. While the report writer will speak to the children as part of the report, the research in this area has found that children don't experience this as being heard in the proceedings.

The independent children's lawyer is a lawyer who is appointed by the court in some cases. The ICL is another way a child's view is heard in family law proceedings.

I was fascinated to hear the evidence regarding why it is the ideal for children to be heard in family law cases about them — in summary being involved in their matter is crucial for more positive outcomes for the child and their overall development, it even being commented that involving the child may assist them in avoiding becoming a future family law participant themselves.

It is pretty clear giving children a voice in family law issues is important, we need to develop improved methods to do so. There seems to be much interest in again exploring this happening directly by children speaking to with the judge.

We heard of some overseas methods, in Germany and Singapore judges meet kids in a playground environment to hear from the children. I'm imagining in the future the family court might have room set up like the Starlight Express Rooms in hospitals for kids have a safe and fun space to chat to the judge.

However, the vast majority of family law matters are resolved without getting near a judge. In the chief justice's talk earlier in the day she highlighted her frustration that many of the high profile cases where things went terribly wrong were not judicial decisions. The system needs to include ways in which children are heard in mediations outside the court.

It's clear there are lots of challenges but also lots of opportunities for improving both the process and the outcome.