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Law PhD thesis emphasises children's voices in family disputes

Wednesday 19 August 2020 4:02pm

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Central-Otago barrister and mediator Deb Inder’s PhD on children’s participation in family court processes is aimed at improving legal policy and practice to ensure children have the opportunity to express their views on matters affecting them.

Deb’s PhD drew on her experience as a family law practitioner, and as a Family Dispute Resolution (FDR) mediator and Voice of Child consultant.

“I’ve often witnessed children whose parents were embroiled in conflict and I thought more should be done to provide the opportunity for children to express their views and better support children in the process.

“Children often say they felt their participation was a waste of time, or pointless as nothing changed for them, and I also experienced situations where they wanted to speak directly to the decision-maker but couldn’t access this as judicial meetings are largely controlled by the lawyer for the child.”

“In some cases, lawyers weren’t bothering to meet their child-client despite a statutory requirement to do so, and many outdated views on children and childhood were also evident amongst practitioners.”

These “real-world” experiences changed her approach to research, highlighting the potentially “problematic gap between research, policy and practice.”

To address these shortcomings, Deb’s research focussed on making the experience for children more meaningful and effective by identifying key barriers to participation, and improving practice of professionals in the family justice system.

“I think working at the coal face brings a really important perspective into academia. I can identify how an important philosophy can inform policy but can become diluted by the time it reaches practice, or due to its interpretation and application, can create unintended outcomes.”

A recent independent report examining the 2014 Family Law Reforms, and readings of a Government Bill designed to strengthen children’s participation in the family justice system, provides an opportunity to promote the child participation model developed in Deb’s research. The model can also be used to inform policy.

“Surprisingly, I’ve got quite a lot to say about that! I’d like my research to influence and change training for the lawyer for the child as well as judicial meetings. I would love my child participation model to be picked up and applied across all contexts to ensure meaningful and effective involvement of children in matters affecting them. I’ve certainly learnt the PhD journey doesn’t end at graduation, but rather is when the work begins.”

In coming months Deb will meet with a working group from the New Zealand family law section responsible for making submissions on the Bill. She has also been appointed to the Committee of the Children’s Rights Alliance Aotearoa New Zealand (CRAANZ), a coalition of non-governmental organisations, families and individuals that promotes the rights and well-being of our children and youth through advocacy and education. Using the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCROC) and other international human rights instruments, CRAANZ’s primary function is to lead the shadow-reporting process in relation to New Zealand’s compliance with UNCROC.

“I’m also finishing a journal article – my supervisor Associate Professor Nicola Taylor will be sighing with relief – to promote my work and practice model and hope to have that published in an international journal. I continue to run and build my practice as a Barrister. Some interesting and challenging hearings are coming up, which will help keep my brain stimulated.”

Through her work and research, Deb has become a strong advocate for children’s participation but still hears practitioners regularly saying children should be protected from conflict as a reason to exclude or limit children’s participation.

“I agree that children should be protected from conflict as much as they can be, but we can’t use protection as an excuse to not respect children’s participation rights. Presently, there is an undocumented number of children being excluded from participating in matters affecting them within the family justice system due to the discretionary nature of the mechanisms enabling participation, and the fiscal constraints associated with appointment of lawyer for the child.

“An alternate model could be introduced that is safe, effective and fiscally attractive – but we have to want to respect and honour children’s rights to give effect to this notion. The thing for everyone to remember is that for children, participation is about having a say and doesn’t always mean getting their way.”

Deb will recieve her PhD in absentia after the 29 August graduation ceremony was cancelled due to COVID-19 restrictions