UK Family Law Reform

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What Do The Little Ones Want ?

BY DANIEL WILLIAMS 14th March 2005

Before separated parents taking part in the Family Court's Children's Cases Program step into a court room, they must first watch a film called Consider the Children. The 12-min. video stars child actors - from kindergartners to teens - whose sound bites express the cocktail of emotions commonly felt by kids when the two people they most depend on split up. As a piece of art it's not Kramer vs. Kramer, but as a jolting reminder to parents that nothing is more wrenching than a child's suffering, it works.

A little boy sits in the backseat of his father's car, gazing at him. He'd love to spend more time with his Dad, he explains, but "it makes Mum upset when she sees me with Dad - and you don't want to be around when Mum gets upset."

Another child complains about being interrogated by his mother whenever he returns from visiting his dad. The father has a new girlfriend, and Mum wants to know if they sleep in the same bed. Says a teenage girl of her parents: "I just wish they realized how scary it is when they argue and fight." A little girl tugs the heartstrings with, "Maybe if I'd tried harder not to be naughty, Dad would still be here."

The best interests of children has always been the guiding principle of Australia's Family Court, which has sheltered them from the experience of being fought over in a place where entry requires passing through a metal detector and former spouses tend not to look at each other, preferring to whisper conspiratorially and derisively to their counsel about a person they presumably once loved. "Someone once said to me," says Relationships Australia's Anne Hollonds, "that in the Criminal Court you see bad people at their best, where in the Family Court you see good people at their worst."

Children don't testify in the Family Court; rather, a court-appointed psychologist or counselor conveys their feelings to the judge in a written report. But some dads' groups charge that these officials interpret rather than report what the kids say, and that too often their interpretations are colored by the view that women are the natural guardians of children.

Now the Family Court is wondering whether it has protected kids a little too much. "We are hearing that children - some children, at least - do want a greater involvement in the process," says Chief Justice Diana Bryant. "We're starting to understand that although we do take into account children's wishes, children themselves don't always understand that.

And in Europe and parts of North America, certainly, they think it's very odd that we don't involve children more directly." Bryant doesn't envisage children testifying in Family Court cases, but a change of policy allowing the older ones to speak directly to the judge in private is likely to happen soon.

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