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Children’s experience of private law proceedings: Six key messages from research

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28 Oct 21 - 28 Oct 21 #518027 by rubytuesday
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The family court has a role in resolving disputes between separating parents over child arrangements—known as private law. More than twice as many private law applications are started in England and Wales each year than public law applications. Yet little is known about the children and families involved in them.

As part of Nuffield Family Justice Observatory’s focus on how the well-being of children and families can be improved following parental separation, there is a need to better understand children’s views and experiences. However, despite a wealth of research showing how parental separation and interparental conflict affect children’s outcomes, there is a comparative lack of research into how children experience or view their parents’ separation or divorce, and their experience of private law proceedings.

The NFJO recently identified and summarised the extent of the research in this area. This Spotlight paper highlights the six clear messages that emerged from our synthesis of this literature. It summarises the research as a whole, while highlighting findings from a number of individual studies, and aims to raise points for reflection and discussion.

Parental separation can be highly stressful for children and can have a big impact on their lives. For some, this impact can last into adulthood. The court system should be set up to try to minimise stress and harm rather than add to it

.• Children often feel left in the dark about what is happening throughout their parents’ separation and the court process. In some cases, children know more about what is going on than adults realise but are not always given the accurate and timely information they want. Attempts by adults to hide what is going on can in fact cause significant stress for children. Professionals should take an active role in ensuring children have access to adequate information presented in childfocused ways.

• Children overwhelmingly feel unheard in court proceedings. This causes them significant distress. When children did report positive experiences of participation, this was linked to them experiencing the decisions made more positively. Some studies highlighted that simple changes—such as communicating the final decision in a child-friendly way and ensuring children were aware proceedings had started and what that meant—could make children feel more listened to.

• Many children want to be more involved in decision making. There are different ways children can be supported to share their views and different children may want different things. There is an important distinction to be drawn between children wanting their views to be listened to and taken seriously and children wanting responsibility for the final decision.

• Children may have to engage with a lot of professionals while their parents are going through separation. Professionals need to ensure these interactions are sensitive and supportive, and that they demonstrate an understanding of how serious these issues are for the children involved. Support can make a difference for children and we need to think about how to improve support in the community, including from schools, for children.

• Generally children will have views about contact with some serious thought behind them. But they also need time and support to be able to consider their views, especially where domestic abuse is a factor.


The six key messages are:

1. Parental separation can be distressing, traumatic and confusing

2. Good communication and access to information are important

3. Being heard and understood in court can feel empowering

4. Being properly involved and consulted in decision making is important

5. Getting the right support makes a difference

6. Thoughts and feelings on contact are complex and take time to process

The research clearly indicates that children are actively—not passively—involved in their parents’ separation and court proceedings. Decisions made by the court have a big impact on children’s lives, and children’s experiences of being left out of decision making can increase anxiety and upset. Across the research, there was a clear need for children to be provided with greater support and guidance to adjust and cope in the context of these family changes, and for the court and other professionals to better involve children and communicate with them about the process. This should include setting clear boundaries about their participation.

You can read the report in full here - Children’s experience of private law proceedings: Six key messages from research
Last edit: 28 Oct 21 by rubytuesday.

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