Promoting children’s voices in Australian family law

A  black and white photo of a child with short hair yelling into a recording studio microphone

There is a powerful, ongoing tension in Australian family law between protecting children from parental conflict and fulfilling their right to participate in decision-making when their parents separate. Children have reported feeling that family law system professionals do not listen to, consider, or care about their views. Despite children calling for ‘a bigger voice more of the time’ in family law proceedings, little has been done to improve children’s experience of participation.

Using funding from the Children’s Rights Research Fund, we aim to contribute to addressing this issue by co-designing and producing a children’s participation toolkit, together with children and young people whose parents have separated and accessed Australia’s family law system. This blog post outlines our research project and highlights how we aim to contribute in a practical, meaningful way to current policy agendas and legislative reforms to promote children’s rights in Australian family law.

Why children’s participation matters

The value of giving children the opportunity to express their views and to have those views taken into account in decision-making about their best interests is laid out in Article 12 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). In simple (and child-friendly) terms, Article 12 provides that: ‘Children have the right to give their opinions freely on issues that affect them. Adults should listen and take children seriously.’

The benefits of children’s participation in family law proceedings have been well documented. They include:

  • Improving children’s capacity to make decisions independently and helping them to feel empowered in the process;
  • Producing well-informed, relevant decisions;
  • Improving compliance with parenting orders; and
  • Helping parents to resolve their disputes more effectively.

The importance of children’s right to participate is also emphasised in the National Framework for Protecting Australia’s Children 2021-2031. This is underpinned by the guiding principle, amongst others, of: ‘[L]istening and responding to the voices and views of children and young people… [who] have the right to participate in decisions that affect them.’

“We need to engage with children and young people, to better understand what meaningful, safe participation means and looks like for them in practice. Our project will listen to and learn from children and young people as experts by experience.”

Listening to and learning from children and young people with experience of the family law system

We will work with children and young people whose parents have separated and accessed Australia’s family law system, to co-design and produce a children’s participation toolkit. This toolkit will consist of various innovative resources for children and young people to raise awareness of their right under Article 12 of the CRC to participate in the family law system in different contexts, including litigation, mediation, and family dispute resolution.

 

The aims of our project are:

  1. To improve children’s experiences of participation in Australian family law decision-making;
  2. To contribute to the growing body of research and evidence about the value of respecting children’s right to participate in decision-making about matters that affect them; and
  3. To make an innovative contribution to the current policy and legislative priorities of the Australian Government to promote children’s participatory rights

The toolkit will answer questions such as:

  • What are my rights under Article 12 of the CRC?
  • Who can help me to express my views and be heard?  
  • Who can keep me updated about what’s happening?
  • What can I do if I think I haven’t been given an opportunity to express my views or I haven’t been heard?

How we will do the research

Firstly, we will prepare a literature review, examining the right to participation under Article 12 of the CRC. We will look at how that principle is implemented in existing mechanisms for embedding children’s direct, unfiltered voices into decision-making processes, both within and beyond the Australian family law context.

Secondly, we will conduct online focus groups to co-design and test the children’s participation toolkit with children and young people whose parents have separated and accessed the Australian family law system. The first round of focus groups will be devoted to co-designing the toolkit. We will code and analyse the data from these focus groups to identify common themes in children and young people’s responses to, and ideas for, promoting their right to participation across family law decision-making processes. Once we have built the toolkit, the second round of focus groups will test it with children and young people, to assess its functionality and practical value.

Project Contact

Dr Georgina Dimopoulos: [email protected]