Family courts should become more open to hearing the views of children, the chief judge Sir James Munby has said.
In a judgment handed down last week, Munby said there had been a “sea-change” in attitudes towards hearing evidence from children in court, but approaches still needed to be changed.
Munby was commenting in an appeal case regarding the unlawful removal of three children from Hungary to England by their mother. The original case decided that the children should return to Hungary as they had been unlawfully moved to England without the father’s consent.
The eldest child, 14, contested that her voice had not been heard and her concerns were not appropriately put across. It was also argued by representatives that her younger sibling’s views, and the strength of them, had not adequately been considered.
In an earlier judgment, the judge who allowed the appeal said he hoped the eldest child, referred to as L, “will feel that she has had her full say in the process…she needs to be a full participating party with representation”.
Representatives for the girl, referred to as L, argued that she was denied her right to participate in a decision which fundamentally affected her future, and the Deputy Judge in the original judgment had failed to meet with the girl.
L said she was happy and integrated in her life in England, and she had changed from a “quiet timid girl” when living in Hungary, to a “happy girl” in her English school. Lawyers representing her said these factors should play a role in the decision to send the children back to Hungary, at least until the conclusion of another set of proceedings happening there.
The appeal about the overall ruling was unsuccessful as Munby could see “no error of fact” in the original judgment. The judge who heard the original case had taken account all relevant factors in his judgment, Munby said.
However, in his decision, Munby looked back at the issue of children giving evidence, and analysed case law such as Re W in 2010, where the supreme court said there was no longer a presumption against children giving evidence in family proceedings.
Munby said “proper adherence” to that judgment would see increasing numbers of children giving evidence in family proceedings.
“It is apparent that in relation to all these matters there has been a sea-change in attitudes over the last decade and more, even if on occasion practitioners and the courts have been and still are too slow to recognise the need for change or to acknowledge the pace of change,” Munby said.
He added: “It is plain that the further changes in our approach to these matters which are now widely acknowledged require to be implemented, and sooner rather than later.”
“Moreover, and I wish to emphasise this, the process of change continues apace.”
The Family Procedure Rules Committee is currently looking at the recommendations of the Children and Vulnerable Witnesses Working Group, which recently considered the topic of children giving evidence in family proceedings, Munby said.