Vicky Preece discusses the collaborative approach and provides some insight into working with child clients and being instructed by them.
As a member of the Law Society Children’s panel you are required, as far as possible, to undertake your own advocacy on matters in which you are instructed. This means that as a childcare lawyer I represent many different clients in court. My children clients are often represented via a litigation friend, known as a children’s guardian, who will be an experienced social work professional. In addition to being a litigation friend the guardian is also the court appointed expert, and their views carry much weight with the judge. The guardian and children’s solicitor work together in what is known as the ‘tandem model’, the key function of this is to ensure that the child has their own voice within proceedings and that their needs remain the key focus of the court.
However, children who are competent to give independent instructions may give me instructions directly if they have different views from their children’s guardian. Older children in care proceedings have often suffered years of abuse or neglect and taking instructions from them and helping them navigate proceedings requires skill, not only as a lawyer but as a trusted adult.
My experiences of being independently instructed by a child or young person have been varied, some are angry, some are scared, some are fiercely loyal to their families, some struggle to understand the concerns of professionals, however all of them are clear that they want their views heard and know that decisions are being made that affect them profoundly. It is essential that they know that the court has taken into account their wishes and feelings and understand why the judge reaches their decision.
I also represent parents who are facing the prospect of having their children removed from their care against their wishes, again for many different reasons. Often parent clients have mental health difficulties or learning difficulties which have led to them being unable to provide their children with the ‘good enough’ care they require. Or they may have addictions or never experienced appropriate care themselves. Most of the parents I represent love their children and are distressed by finding themselves in proceedings. It is very satisfying if as their legal advisor you can assist them to understand the issues and that they begin to make the changes necessary to keep their children in their care, frequently this involves helping them to work with service providers.
Sadly not all children can return home and a childcare lawyer may also represent other family members who are ‘riding to the rescue’ and putting themselves forward to offer vulnerable children a secure home if necessary. These are often concerned grandparents who are putting aside their retirement to care for a younger generation. It is important when representing such clients to ensure proper support is in place to help them care for the children who are placed with them, and that they are not being set up to fail. This includes ensuring they clearly understand the risks posed by other family members and how to protect the children they care for.
Clearly as a childcare lawyer one needs to be able to be able to communicate effectively with people from all walks of life. An essential skill is an ability to listen and understand what your client’s needs are as well as manage their expectations. One key tool in achieving this is section 1 (1) of the Children Act 1989, ’When a court determines any question with respect to the upbringing of a child…the child’s welfare shall be the court’s paramount consideration‘, known as the ‘Paramountcy principle’. This helps as it means that all representatives have to keep in mind the welfare interests of the child when acting for any party, and my experience is that this often leads to a collaborative approach amongst lawyers and advocates working in the Family Court on childcare matters. It is of course important to rigorously represent your client’s best interests, however the key to this is often understanding how the best interests of the children may be met and assisting your client in also reaching this understanding. A collaborative approach amongst lawyers also means that child care proceedings tend to be less adversarial. In my view, this leads to all parties working together to problem solve and find solutions which are best for the family.
Ultimately not all children can return home, but getting the right solutions for each child whether that is with their parents or elsewhere is in everyone’s best interests.