Lady Hale calls for recognition of children as ‘human beings’ in family cases

Lady Hale

Deputy President of the UK Supreme Court, Lady Hale , has said judges should not be reluctant to allow children to give evidence in family law cases, The Irish Times reports.

Lady Hale told an international congress on children’s rights in Dublin on Monday that children are people with their own personalities who can give evidence.

In the criminal courts in the UK, children routinely give evidence, prompting the judge to ask why they cannot do the same in the family courts.

“Lawyers are sometimes wanting to get the worst out of the witness, aren’t they?” she asked.

“Some people would say that’s what lawyers are for.”

Lady Hale spoke at the World Congress of Family Law and Children’s Rights on the topic of ‘Are children human beings?’

She told delegates at the Convention Centre in Dublin that she had two “bees in her bonnet” about the failure to recognise children as human beings.

First was the use of “it” when referring to children. This, she said constituted “abuse of childhood in the English-speaking world”.

Secondly, she took issue with the use of “soulless initials” to refer to children in cases, a practice intended to preserve their anonymity.

Lady Hale prefers to use imaginary names with the same initials and encouraged other judges to do the same.

“I would like to campaign for all the judges in the room to adopt a similar practice,” she said.

“Try and make it a plausible name, right gender, right ethnicity, but not their own, then the child really leaps out of the page in a way that they don’t if they are just an initial.”

She went on to say that judges should view children as “real human beings” when speaking to them in private.

“There was confusion about whether this was basically a public relations exercise, so that the child could meet the judge and realise the judge was a real human being,” she said.

“And the judge could explain what was going on and possibly explain to the child, ‘well you have to do as I say, just as your parents have to do as I say’. All of that is completely unobjectionable. Though you definitely need witnesses in the sense you mustn’t do it by yourself – you need someone there taking a note and ensuring you are not doing anything wrong.”

The Supreme Court justice also advised delegates to read Ian McEwan’s novel The Children Act, which deals with the problems facing courts when a competent child refuses treatment to keep them alive or prevent a major deterioration in their health.

“I hope you’ve read that book, whether you are a fan of Ian McEwan or not. It is a very good book, or at least quite a good illustration of what a family division judge’s life is like,” she said.

“The only thing about it is, she does get all the best cases, whereas most of us mainly don’t have all the best cases, they just pop up from time to time.”