Children are ill-served by legal system

October 17, 1997

CHILDREN involved in cases of abuse or neglect need a better idea of court processes, say researchers studying the 1989 Children Act.

Although the way these cases are handled is considered the "Rolls-Royce" of the child legal system, the researchers believe young people can still be badly let down.

Following the establishment of the Children Act, most judges choose to exclude children from court proceedings.

But half of the children interviewed by Warwick University researchers said they wanted to go to court, and would be happier if they were able to see for themselves what was happening.

Many of the children believed they had done something wrong because their only knowledge of court was gleaned from criminal cases shown on television.

Judith Masson, professor of law at Warwick, and her colleague Maureen Oakley sat in on 63 meetings involving children, their guardians, representatives and solicitors.

After each meeting they interviewed everyone to find out how much each had understood.

They found that guardians were generally good at establishing a rapport with the children and that children usually had a reasonable understanding of what they did. But young people were often baffled by the solicitor's role.

Solicitors themselves tended to have as little to do with the children as possible. "I don't have these talking-to-children skills" was a regular comment.

The researchers were particularly concerned that issues raised by the children in these meetings were not always later fully examined in court.

Many of the children they questioned wanted the chance to say something themselves to the judge. Others wanted to be there in person to hear the court's decision. Sometimes there was considerable delay before the youngsters learned what decision had been made in court.

"We thought children should be allowed to go to court if they wanted, but that the court process needed to change to accommodate them," Professor Masson said.

"The new system set up under the Children Act is clearly not meeting all children's needs. We are spending a lot of money on our court process, but it is not always working fully."

She said children needed better information about the court system. Poor information - such as a leaflet for children involved in abuse cases that showed a picture of a criminal court with police officers - helped bolster misplaced ideas that many young people held.

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