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Vardags Family Law Essay competition 2023/24 | Ama Amankwah

Ama Amankwah - Lancaster University

Simplifying Justice: Making Court Judgments Child-Friendly

Introduction

In the complex realm of family law, where a significant number of cases involve children, it is crucial for children to understand the intricacies of legal judgment. Recent data provided by CAFCASS highlights an astonishing reality: during 2023, an average of 7,077 children were directly affected by family law cases. This statistic emphasises the significance of children understanding these judgments since they directly shape and influence various aspects of their lives. Under Article 13(1) of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UCNRC), a child is entitled to freedom of expression, which includes the right to seek, receive, and share information and ideas. More importantly, the Children Act 1989 serves as a conduit, incorporating many UNCRC provisions into domestic legislation. This includes the important principle of listening to the voice of the child during judicial processes. In this comprehensive legal framework, it is clear that children must understand and engage with these legal processes in order to ensure that their rights and views are appropriately recognised and protected. Making court judgements child-friendly is crucial as it empowers children to understand their rights, reduces emotional stress, and encourages their active participation in the legal processes. Child-friendly justice, as defined by the Council of Europe, embodies a set of principles that prioritise childrens rights in legal procedures. It entails adapting these proceedings to meet their needs, maturity, and case circumstances, while also maintaining crucial rights such as accessibility, privacy and dignity. While efforts have been made to align legal mechanisms with the needs of young people, a harsh reality remains: children continue to lack an adequate understanding of legal proceedings.

This paper begins with a thorough exploration of the fundamental nature of court judgements, revealing the wider consequences and implications. It then delves into the significance of making legal rulings understandable for children. Finally, it concludes with a comprehensive analysis that presents solutions to improve the clarity and accessibility of these decisions. In the pursuit of a more child-friendly legal realm, this paper seeks to bridge the gap between complex legal concepts and the understanding of young people, ultimately aiming for a future in which justice is not only attainable but also understandable to all.

Understanding the Inherent Complexities in Court Judgments

The complex nature of contemporary court judgments creates a significant challenge for children, and also many adults, hindering their understanding and, as a result, affecting their access to justice.

The main challenge in making court judgments child-friendly, which includes using age- appropriate and accurate language, stems from the wide range of judicial actions involving children. Each case comes with its own set of characteristics, interests, and claims. For example, explaining custody arrangements to a child requires simplifying legal terminology while also preserving the intricacies of the legal process. In adoption cases, the language employed must be considerate of emotional aspects, guaranteeing clarity for children while still maintaining the precision required in legal documentation. Similarly, addressing matters of abuse demands a thorough assessment of the childs emotional well-being, necessitating language that is both supportive and compassionate. This complexity emerges from the need to personalise communication methods to the unique characteristics and sensitivities of each legal scenario, emphasising the importance of collaboration among legal professionals and experts from various fields to develop comprehensive and child-friendly court judgments. Thus, the significance of these proceedings on young lives cannot be overstated, for they not only affect their immediate circumstances but also shape their concept of justice and trust in the judicial system for many years to come.

Furthermore, a significant amount of these legal actions is concealed from public view. Despite efforts to adjust specific judicial forums, such as magistrates courts, tribunals, and higher courts, to accommodate children – particularly in processes for presenting evidence - most of this activity remains hidden from public scrutiny. Juvenile courts, for instance, often operate away from public view, leading to oral and unpublished judgments that lack detailed explanations. Given the absence of documentation, it is difficult to provide thorough and accessible explanations of decisions, reducing transparency and understanding, particularly for the children involved. Even in tribunals that have attempted to include children in proceedings, little attention has been paid to how verdicts are communicated to them. The lack of emphasis on effective interaction contributes to the issue of making legal processes understandable to children. Furthermore, Family Court hearings are normally conducted in private, resulting in only a limited number of rulings being publicised, typically only those considered legally or publicly relevant. This is corroborated by a finding from CAFCASS, which reveals that approximately two-thirds of the children they assist each year are involved in private law proceedings, indicating that a significant number of children are dealing with legal matters outside the public eye. To put it simply, the complexity stems from a systemic lack of transparency and accessibility throughout numerous legal forums, which impedes the development of child-friendly court judgements. This opacity in proceedings, as well as the scarcity of full explanations available in the public domain, constitute substantial challenges to making legal processes accessible and inclusive for children. This underlines the critical need for judges to improve communication and receive clearer instructions on how to achieve these objectives—matters that will be thoroughly discussed in the following sections of this piece.

Significance of Making Court Judgments Child-Accessible

In addition to ensuring child accessibility in court judgements, it is equally important to examine why such judgments should be child-friendly and their significance. In this section, we examine the cases of Re A: Letter to a Young Person and Patrick v Patrick to demonstrate the necessity of child-accessible judgments. These cases represent a significant step forward in making family court proceedings more accessible, particularly for competent children who are directly involved in such matters, which are often viewed to be complex or steeped in secrecy.

In the case of Re A: Letter to a Young Person, the English High Court denied the fathers request to relocate to Scandinavia with Sam, his 14-year-old son. Following this verdict, the judge addressed Sam in a personal letter describing the reasons behind the courts decision. The relevance of this case stems from the judges choice to connect directly with the child through a letter— an act hailed by both legal communities and childrens rights advocates for its clarity in communicating with children. Writing directly to the child enabled the judge to address complicated and potentially unpleasant issues, such as the childs fathers judgements and the pressures he faced, without condescending the child but instead acknowledging and valuing their maturity and engagement.

This point is reinforced by the case of Patrick v Patrick where despite abuse claims and damaged relationships between parents and children, the court allowed indirect communication between the children and their father.17 The sheriff took an innovative approach by writing directly to the children involved, clearly explaining the courts decision, even though it differed from the childrens expressed wishes. To avoid parental interference and ensure a positive outcome, this unique method prioritised both justice and resolution. As a result, giving letters as a means of facilitating contact between children and parents signifies a step towards child-friendly judgements in both circumstances. This is because it demonstrates the dedication to ensuring that legal judgements are tailored to childrens needs and circumstances, with an emphasis on accessibility and direct communication.

Furthermore, both cases reveal how these child-accessible judgements help children understand and accept final outcomes, assuring both procedural and emotional justice. These judgements not only meet the constitutional standards for access to justice, and, procedural fairness, but they also, as stated in the introduction, coincide with the UNCRC obligations of ensuring children receive information tailored to their age group and level of understanding. These rulings, by increasing clarity, enable children to comprehend the factual and legal accuracy of decisions, allowing them to contribute effectively to appeals or implementation processes. Moreover, they can also serve an educational purpose by clarifying the legal implications of decisions and promoting a greater grasp of legal concepts. Thus, examining cases such as Patrick and Re: A Letter to a Young Person illustrates the importance of adopting child-friendly practices into legal judgements. This approach not only enables judges to base their decisions on the fundamental principles of childrens rights, but it also encourages a nuanced and holistic evaluation of each childs rights and interests.

Beyond merely simplifying language, a child-friendly approach in judgements actively encourages the participation of children, aligning with international legal frameworks like the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. By adopting child-friendly procedures, the legal system evolves into one that is fairer and more empathetic, effectively ensuring that the well-being and perspectives of the children involved are prioritised. Therefore, such an approach, as seen in both cases, compels courts to place children at the core of decision-making, fostering a more egalitarian and responsive legal system that values and acknowledges children as citizens who are directly impacted by court rulings. Furthermore, cases such as Re A: Letter to a Young Person and Patrick v Patrick exemplify a promising trend in court judgements, marking a growing inclination to actively engage children in the legal environment.

This examination highlights how writing letters directly to children helps improve their understanding, facilitates procedural fairness, and empowers children by providing tailored, understandable information. It also reinforces the persistent issue of complex legal decisions being inaccessible to children, emphasising the continued need for child-friendly judgments to ensure inclusivity and fairness within the judicial system.

Potential strategies

The development of explicitly child-friendly court judgments necessitates a holistic and meticulous approach, concentrating on enhancing childrens understanding, active participation, and emotional well-being within the legal framework. Current statistics are alarming, indicating that a mere 7% of children involved in legal proceedings are furnished with information in both oral and written forms, a practice predominantly reserved for grave criminal cases. This stark statistic underscores the pressing need for judgments that are not only accessible but also tailored to the cognitive and emotional needs of children, particularly in less severe legal matters. Such a significant disparity lays bare the systemic deficiencies in crafting inclusive and child-centric legal processes. Consequently, a fundamental shift in perspective and practice is essential to address these shortcomings. This section is dedicated to exploring and proposing viable solutions and strategies aimed at transforming court judgments into instruments of justice that are truly child- friendly, ensuring that the voices and rights of the youngest members of our society are respected and prioritized in every aspect of legal proceedings.

Focusing on child-friendly judgments requires communicating information directly to them while navigating potential parental restrictions or influences. This involves relying on trustworthy specialists who deliver personalized information while respecting the childs independent right to access information. As highlighted in the Council of Europe guidebook, this method has proven effective in furnishing child-friendly information to migrant children. The involvement of reliable professionals, such as lawyers, is vital in aiding migrating children, ensuring they understand the extent of their role, duties, and professional limitations. This approach not only prevents the formation of misunderstandings in court judgements but also offers reassurance when outcomes are uncertain. However, using this strategy may present practical challenges, especially if there are difficulties of trust or validity with parents. For instance, parental influence or mistrust can offer considerable hurdles, preventing children from gaining information regarding the judgements of the case. This suggests that resolving these challenges demands a comprehensive strategy. To begin, establishing clear norms and regulations that expressly recognise the childs ability to obtain information can serve as a foundation. These rules should specify situations in which direct contact with the child is critical, illustrating their right to fully comprehend judicial actions that directly impact them in the realm of child-friendly judgements.

One major challenge lies in standardizing such approaches. Incorporating child-friendly elements like clear structure, simple language, and visual aids in legal documents is beneficial for children, and also adults, who are navigating the complexities of the court system. This approach enhances clarity and understanding among people of all ages, resulting in a more accessible and inclusive legal environment. Given the difficulties many children, and adults, face in comprehending legal terminology and procedures, implementing a universally clear and straightforward framework could considerably improve the overall effectiveness of the legal system. In essence, making court judgements more child-friendly may contribute to a broader positive transformation in the accessibility and user-friendliness of the entire legal process for individuals of varying ages and backgrounds. Striking a balance between simplicity and legal accuracy, on the other hand, is a considerable task. This is because it is difficult to create documents that cater to a wide range of demographics and comprehension levels while maintaining legal integrity. The Gillick v West Norfolk and Wisbech Area Health Authority case established the Gillick competence test for childrens capacity to consent to medical treatment without the involvement of their parents. However, translating this complicated legal precedent into a manner that children can understand while maintaining legal precision is a clear example of such a challenge. In response to this challenge, a viable solution arises through the implementation of a tiered approach to document design. This method envisions documents with a dual structure: comprehensive sections tailored for those well-versed in legal matters and simplified, child-friendly sections created for broader understanding. The main goal is to strike a delicate balance, acknowledging the diverse needs of individuals with varying ages and backgrounds. The simplified sections within this tiered structure would prominently feature visual aids, concise language, and structured formatting, collectively enhancing overall accessibility. This multifaceted approach acknowledges the complexity of legal communication while simultaneously demonstrating a commitment to inclusivity. By incorporating a tiered document design, the legal system takes a step towards ensuring that legal information is not an exclusive privilege reserved for those with specialized knowledge. The focus on visual aids and concise language, in particular, acknowledges the need for accessibility, understanding that effective communication extends beyond legal expertise and benefits individuals across diverse demographics. Ultimately, this approach seeks to bridge the gap between legal accuracy and comprehension, fostering a legal environment that is transparent, equitable, and accessible to all.

The ultimate goal is to bridge the gap between legal language and childrens comprehension, promoting inclusivity and comprehension within the legal realm. Achieving child-friendly judgments in the legal system requires more than just a desire to change; it calls for comprehensive systemic reforms, dedicated training programs for legal professionals, and the harmonisation of practices across various legal jurisdictions. This endeavour, while fraught with challenges, also presents unique opportunities to reshape the concept of justice to be more accommodating and sensitive to the needs and perspectives of children.

Conclusion

To conclude, the pursuit of child-friendly judgments in family law is not just a legal duty but also a moral one, deeply rooted in the ideals of justice, compassion, and respect for every childs inherent rights and dignity. This analysis illustrates the urgent need to decipher the complexities of legal jargon, making court judgments more accessible and comprehensible to children. The challenges are enormous, ranging from the need for greater transparency in judicial proceedings to the critical importance of adapting communication to the unique sensitivities and understanding of children. However, the potential strategies outlined—such as creating personalised child- friendly court judgements, establishing rigorous training programs for legal practitioners, and using a tiered approach to document design— provide a blueprint for genuine change.

As we progress on the path towards a more inclusive and empathetic legal system, it is necessary to recognise that at the heart of every court judgment, are children whose lives, futures, and well- being are profoundly shaped by our actions. As a result, our collaborative efforts to create a legal landscape where every childs rights are maintained, and their understanding prioritized, represent not just steps towards legal reform but significant strides towards cultivating a more just and equitable society. Through sustained dedication, fostering collaboration, and embracing innovative approaches, we can narrow the gap between legal intricacies and child comprehension, ensuring that justice, in its purest form, is accessible and understandable to all, regardless of age.

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BIBLIOGRAPHY

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