An Independent Voice for Children

The Child and Youth Legal Centre

An Independent Voice for Children

The Governors of the Law Foundation saw that children need an independent voice in the justice system.

In family and child protection cases, parents and guardians are often too involved to present their child’s unique views, especially if those views differ from their own. Other times, a well-intentioned parent might leave a child out of important discussions to shield him or her from the turmoil of family breakdown.

But as any child will tell you: “I’m the one living this. Why doesn’t anyone want to know what I think?”

And then there are legal issues that are unique to children and for which they need a knowledgeable advocate – bullying, problems at school and human rights.

The Law Foundation’s solution was funding starting in 2017 for the Society for Children and Youth of BC to set up the Child and Youth Legal Centre (“CYLC”).

Located in Vancouver’s Commercial Drive neighbourhood, the CYLC is a team of lawyers, an advocate and a social worker who provide an independent voice for children caught up in legal conflict.

Some children arrive at the Centre’s door seeking help. Others are referred by a judge who is concerned that they need someone to speak on their behalf in a family dispute. All are vulnerable and want to be heard on matters that will have a profound effect on their future.

Before CYLC was established, children were often “heard” in family law cases through written, sometimes dated, reports. In child protection matters, if a child’s views were solicited at all, the evidence was usually from social workers. The court had information about the child’s wants and needs, but no direct evidence or advocacy.

Now, with the CYLC providing independent advice and representation, children’s voices are heard with more immediacy. Children now have someone they can talk to confidentially and someone to whom they explain their hopes and fears.

Acting as independent counsel to children in serious family disputes requires skilled advocacy to ensure the parents understand CYLC’s role and to prevent escalation of what is often already a difficult situation. But while the lawyer’s solicitor-client relationship is with the child, the lawyer will often work with the entire family to help them understand how their decisions will affect the child.

Giving children a voice in legal disputes often results in surprising resolutions. Sometimes a child will identify an issue that no one has thought of such as altering a visitation schedule so he or she can meet a friend after school or go to a community event. Other times, the child will decline to decide in favour of one parent or the other but will ask their parents or the judge to consider factors that are important them.

In short, by allowing young people to participate in the legal process, they are empowered, and decision-makers are able to better understand the impact their decisions will have on that particular child.

Feedback from children is consistently positive. They feel heard. They may not have a choice, but they do have a voice. Suffice to say, the Child and Youth Legal Centre, with the guidance of the Society for Children and Youth of BC, is a success.

Giving children an independent voice in the justice system does matter. By recognizing the need and by funding the solution, the Law Foundation of BC again has shown the leadership that has been the hallmark of its past 50 years.