Giving children their voice – reflections of a children’s lawyer

Giving children their voice – reflections of a children’s lawyer

Wednesday, 17 April 2019

Children’s lawyer Priscilla Zahra
Children’s lawyer Priscilla Zahra

In my daily work, I get to meet and help some of Victoria’s most disadvantaged and disempowered children. After working in this role for 2 years I have realised that, for my clients, being represented by a lawyer may be the first time in their life that they are able to voice what they truly want.

Court proceedings are difficult for anyone to understand. For a child who may have experienced abuse or neglect and who is suddenly told that there is a court case about their home or family arrangements, it must be incredibly difficult to take in.

We often meet young people who have been up all night while the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) try to find an emergency place for them to stay, or children who have come in their school uniform, with the hope of getting to school and having a normal day. This is why representing a child requires additional care and attention to meet the needs of that child.'

The initial conference with a child client at court can create many challenges for a lawyer. In a short amount of time they must build a rapport with the child – help them to grasp the concept of lawyer-client confidentiality and how this differs from the relationship with their child protection workers – the role of their lawyer and the fact that you will speak up in court for what they actually want, not what you think is best for them. In my experience I’ve seen how this fact helps children to open up and tell you important information about events and people in their lives.

It might seem that our job as a children’s lawyer is simply to tell the court what the child wants and that the ‘real’ legal work is done by the parents’ lawyers. But everyday I see the unique and important role of children’s lawyers. In many cases a child’s perspective can shape the course of the proceedings and instructions from a child can highly influence the decisions made by all parties and the court.

I represented a teenage client with a history of substance use. Her instructions were a loud and clear 'No' to staying in residential rehabilitation, despite the fact that everyone else wanted her to do so: DHHS, her parents and the magistrate. My job was to advocate in accordance with her instructions.

I made submissions that without my client’s willingness to participate, treatment was unlikely to be effective and would therefore, not be in her best interests. My client and I worked together on an alternative proposal for her to engage with her trusted community drug and alcohol worker and she agreed that if her worker recommended rehab, she would go.

I helped my client give thoughtful instructions which reshaped the court’s assessment of her best interests. The magistrate praised my client for her instructions and my advocacy in coming up with an alternative that was more likely to be successful for the child in the long run. It highlighted how creative and persistent a lawyer must be when representing children.

If I had left it up to the other parties to be the driving force, the young person would probably have quit her rehabilitation.

Representing children has many differences from representing parents in child protection cases. It is a rare case where a child has no understanding of the protective concerns that have led to DHHS intervention. Whether or not the child wants their family to remain intact, they will nearly always be able to provide important instructions about their own experience at home and what they want to change.

While representing children brings challenges such as keeping a child’s confidence, thinking about their safety and the pressure that may be put on them by family members, children and young people have a lot to contribute. They want their voice to be heard and want the court to take into account their wishes when deciding on the best way to move forward. They have lots of questions for their lawyer, as they make sense of the court proceedings, and may feel very strongly about certain aspects of their matter. They expect their lawyer to clearly communicate and negotiate on their instructions to obtain their desired outcome – no different to an adult.

It has been my privilege to come to work each day and meet resilient children from all walks of life and be trusted by them to give them a voice in court proceedings that will have an impact on their lives.

More information

Read our newly released guide Representing children in child protection proceedings – a guide for direct instructions and best interests lawyers.

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