The FRA Director opened the event where he spoke of the importance on access to justice as a key enabler for many other rights. Drawing on the Agency’s findings, he highlighted the importance of capturing the views of both professionals and children. This work underlined that the best systems in the world will not necessarily make justice child-friendly, if the attitudes of professionals towards children are wrong.
The testimonies of children that participated in the Agency’s research who were also at the meeting corroborated this view firsthand. They spoke of their experiences of judicial proceedings, where empathy was lacking and they felt pressure to change testimonies. They talked about how their views were not taken seriously and how they were made to feel wrong for asking questions.
One child mentioned that over the course of many years there was no hearing when she was younger and then had to wait a long time to report about her situation to the judge. She questioned how could she give an account of her firsthand experiences if she is not even asked? Their testimonies stressed the importance of being listened to and being given the opportunity to speak. This is why the children felt compelled to take part in the Agency’s research: “Someone was willing to listen to our testimonies and not be judgemental… [The FRA research] was very important in the hope of change so other children don’t experience the same.”
Assembled child rights and justice experts further explored the challenges of child participation, building on the findings on the Agency’s research into child-friendly justice. They pointed to the fact that every child has the right to be heard under the UN’s Child Rights Convention yet many laws and policies seem intent on setting arbitrary age limits for involving children. They highlighted areas of improvement and outlined promising practices currently in use which should be shared more widely to all those involved in working with children. These included: the Council of Europe’s child-friendly justice guidelines; the European Commission’s 10 principles for integrated child protection systems; the Agency’s checklist for professionals to help justice more child-friendly; Malta’s child protection act that consulted with children as it was being drafted; not to mention inviting children to give their views in meetings such as these, for example.
Education was repeatedly mentioned as playing a vital role. This includes not just on-the-job training for professionals but also in the colleges and universities where they learn their trades. This could also extend to improving multidisciplinary cooperation and training so social workers, the police, the judiciary better understand each other’s needs and roles.
Parents may also benefit from improving their skills so they too are more aware of child rights and needs, not only when it comes to judicial proceedings, but also to find alternative conflict resolutions in cases of custody conflicts, for example.
In summing up, there was talk about a paradigm shift in mainstreaming child participation in all types of proceedings, including administrative ones. This will help create a culture where involving children becomes the norm; this should become embedded in practices rather than being the exception.
In essence, changes to behaviour and attitudes among professionals are needed so they can better empathise with children. In this way child participation will become mainstreamed which is so fundamental to ensuring child-friendly justice.